Mithra, Mithraic Mysteries, and Tarot cards
The introduction of tarot cards in Europe is dated between 1375 and 1378. These cards were acting as a conduit for conveying the messages of the mystery religion of Mithra (Latin and Gk Míthrās, Old Persian Mithra, derives from proto-Indo-Iranian mitra, from the root mi- "to bind" ), the god of light and truth, and represented by the sun.
According to the Roman historian Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD/CE), Mithraism began to be absorbed by the Romans during Pompey's military campaign against Cilician pirates around 70 BCE. The religion eventually migrated from Asia Minor through the soldiers, many of whom had been citizens of the region, into Rome and the far reaches of the Empire. Syrian merchants brought Mithraism to the major cities, such as Alexandria, Rome and Carthage, while captives carried it to the countryside. By the third century AD/CE Mithraism and its mysteries permeated the Roman Empire and extended from India to Scotland, with abundant monuments in numerous countries amounting to over 420 Mithraic sites so far discovered.
The MythThe cosmology of Tarot is based on the seven planets of the Mithraic cult which represented beneficent deities. Such a zodiac representation was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos for induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again. Each one of these heavenly deities has its own representative shadow on earth. They have exactly the same names as their heavenly fathers. The earthly-Mithra himself is the son of Mithra -- the sun, but Helios Mithras is one god. This difficulty, in identifying the heavenly fathers from their earthly sons, has been a great source of confusion for many researchers. The seven days of the week, the seven sacred metals, the seven rites of initiation, and so on were all dedicated to these seven deities. According to the Mitraists' myth of genesis the spirits of all men were created simultaneously, which at their births had to descend from the heavenly paradise to their bodies.The seven planets bestow on people their fates and personalities. Mithra is the friend and the savior of man who is under the spell of Ahreman the evil spirit and his collaborates. Mithra was “born of a Virgin” ( and this is why the calendar originally began in the constellation of Virgo), over Petra Genetrix -- the rock that gives birth, by a river under a tree, as some shepherds watched his birth. When he entered the world he wore the Phrygian cap on his head, and a sword in his hand. The hero-god first gives battle to his father the sun, conquers him, crowns him with rays and makes him his eternal friend and fellow. Then follows the central epic of Mithraic belief, tauroctony or the killing of the bull.
|Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi Deck|
This allegory of an arduous quest to kill the bull and bring it back to the cave associates with Man's spiritual journey towards perfection. The spiteful meddling of Ahriman in the form of cataclysm, droughts, and fires interfere with Man's salvation, which at the end is reached by the beneficence of Mithra. Eventually, with the deliverance of Man assured on earth, Mithra partakes a last supper on earth, accompanied by Helios and his companions. After the supper he is taken in his fiery chariot across the ocean, to his heavenly father from where he works to deliver his future followers. As Frothingham has argued :
" During all the period of his labors and exploits Mithra was not a divine being but a hero. His apotheosis to the divine sphere, like that of Heracles, came afterwards; and only after his translation, in the chariot of the Sun, could he have been represented with the nimbus. This explanation seems supported by the fact that the most important group of representations of Mithra with a nimbus and radiate head is on the Scythian coins of Bactria, struck for Kings Kanerkes and Hooerkes between 87 and 129 A.D.1 In these coins Mithra is represented standing nimbed and radiate as the protector of the King. Another important instance of a radiate and nimbed Mithra is on a relief at Nimrud-Dagh on the temple connected with the funeral monument of King Antiochus of Commagene (69-34 B. c.).2 Here also Mithra stands in front of the King as his protector."
Mithraic conducts was basically of ascetic nature; characterized by temperance. Absolute continence was celebrated as gracious and honorable. At the apocalypse, Mithra; in his capacity as Sol Invictus or Nabarses -- meaning never conquered -- will return to earth riding on a bull, which he will sacrifice, to bestow immortality on everybody.
Mithraic MystriesThe Mithraists worshipped in their sanctuaries Mithraeum which were subterranean caves. There were numerous temples in the Roman empire, the majority have been found in the city of Rome itself. There were five at Ostia alone and could accommodate between forty and a hundred worshipers. These caves were quite dark and required artificial lighting for their conduct of religious rites. They also contained a well. To reach a Mitraeum one had to pass a labyrinth of subterranean passages, which had allegorical connotations, and were used in the initiation ceremonies.
There were seven degrees of initiation into the mithraic mysteries: corax, Raven; cryphius, Prophetess; miles, Soldier; leo, Lion; Perses, Persian; heliodromus, Solar messenger; pater, Father. To each rank belonged a particular mask and garb. These represented seven stages of Justice for the just, who passed through the seven gates of the seven spheres of the planets, leading to a hermetical abode of Mithra the father. Each apotheosis' stage represents a higher degree of humanity until, at the final stage the humanity of the initiates reaching this highest stage submerges into the Mithra's pure spirit of Godlines.
The initiation ceremonies depicted on the frescoes at Capua, Italy show that the initiates were blindfolded, kneeling, and prostrated. These ceremonies enacted the spiritual journey of Mithra . According to Tertullian, a second century North African Christian theologian, the candidates for elavating into the the miles rank were tested for their gallantry. The test consisted of a kind of armed encounter, which the candidate had to force his way towards a coronal. Upon reaching the coronal, a reward was offered to him by an officiant; who suggested to crown him with the coronal. The aspirant had to decline, by saying that Mithra alone was his crown.
The earliest documents on Tarot are found in the northern Italy, early in the 15th century (1420-1440). Mithraism and Orpheic Mysteries as well as Neoplatonism philosophy were among the influences of Renaissance in Italy that originated Tarot, that were referred to as carte da trionfi (cards of triumph) . The concept of Trumps -- a variation of triumph derived from Greek thríambos hymn to Dionysus . The Dionysus myth is closely related to the Mithra and the Orphic Mysteries. According to these Mysteries the human race, were part divine and part evil. Both the Mithraism and the Orphics Mysteries believed in the sacrosanct essence of the soul, and that it was through initiation into the Mysteries and through the process of metempsychosis that the soul could be redeemed from its evil legacy and could accomplish everlasting beatitude. The concept of Triumph of the soul was developed in Neoplatonic centers in Rome, Athens and Alexandria, where the mystical aspects of Mithraism, including divination, demonology, and astrology were practiced. The Neoplatonic Triumph of the soul was a variation on the theme of the popular trionfi motif appeared in art, literature, religious processions, festival pageants, and so on. A Tarot deck , consisted of 78-card deck, of which there were a hierarchy of 22 allegorical trump cards closely related to the Mithraic symbols, such as; judgment, justice, devil (Ahreman), temperance, Mithras' chariot, the sun, and the moon and so on . Each trump triumphed over the lower-ranking trumps.
Artists have used the aesthetics of Tarot concepts for their artistic imaginations, and numerous artists have used its allegorical concepts as a conduit for creative expression. However, these allegorical expressions have been acculturated in order to maintain, consciously or unconsciously, the spirit of Mithraic teachings . The vast majority of all Tarot decks in the 15th through 17th centuries share that acculturation, which resulted in a methodical design. The series of images was similar in style to to the mural paintings in Mithraea. Tarot quickly spread in northern Italy, through Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara. While printed decks became popular, the affluent households commissioned lavishly painted cards, often decorated with gold and silver leaf backgrounds. Historical records from 1436 show that the d'Este court of Ferrara had even a printing press for making cards.
Two of the oldest known Tarot or Tarocchi packs, are the Tarocchi of Mantegna being dated to c.1465, and the Visconti-Sforza deck of the late-fifteenth century. The Tarocchi of Mantegna has been attributed to Andreas Mantegna (1431-1506) the painter and printmaker of the School of Padua, although some researchers dispute this and are of the opinion that it is the work of Parrasio Michele, Master of the School of Ferrara. With the proliferation of cards into new locales some minor innovations were introduced in the sequence of the trumps and their iconography. Of course there are some exceptions; such as the classicized Sola Busca deck and the literary Boiardo deck, which both depict drastically different designs. Nevertheless, despite various alterations in iconography, whether attempts in decimalization or conversely elaborate decorations did not change the overall allegorical characters of the cards .
Visconti-Sforza deck of the mid-fifteenth century which is recognised as the earliest tarot. Seventy-four cards from this deck have survived. They are currently located in the Pierpont Morgan Library, NY (35 cards), the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy (26 cards) and the Colleoni family, Bergamo (13 cards). In the 17th century the cards belonged to Canon Ambivero. They were passed to the Donali family, and then to Count Alessandro Colleoni of Bergamo. At one point Count Colleoni was persuaded by his friend Count Francesco Baglioni to trade 26 cards for some art objects. He later regretted the trade, but was never able to secure the return of his cards. They were bequeathed to the Accademia Carrera in 1900 upon the death of Count Baglioni.
|The Hermit or L'Hermite Major Arcana from the early 18th century Tarot of Jean Dodal|
|The Tarot of Marseilles (or Tarot of Marseille), also widely known by the French designation Tarot de Marseille, is one of the standard patterns for the design of tarot cards. The name Tarot de Marseille is not of particularly ancient vintage; it was coined at least as early as 1889 by the French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) in Chapter XI of his book le Tarot des bohémiens (Tarot of the Bohemians), and was popularized in the 1930s by the French cartomancer Paul Marteau, who used this collective name to refer to a variety of closely related designs that were being made in the city of Marseille in the south of France, a city that was a centre of playing card manufacture, and were (in earlier, contemporaneous, and later times) also made in other cities in France.|
|The “Charles VI” or “Gringonneur” tarot cards|
During the late 1700's and into the early 1800's Alphonse Louis Constant, a French occultist, a Catholic Priest and author who wrote under the pseudonym of Magus Eliphas Levi , created the basis for the most popular Tarot cards still in use today. He believed in the existence of a universal “secret doctrine of magic” that had prevailed throughout history and was evident everywhere in the world. He found close connections between some of the Jewish iconography and the Mithraic myths. In his 'Histoire de la Magie' He argued that that the Mithraic bull represents the angel with the fiery sword who guards the entrance to Paradise;
"the great magical work is the conquest and direction of the burning sword that the cherub [the bull-headed angel ] wields to prevent the return to Eden. In Mithraic symbolism the master of light is seen as vanquishing the bull of earth and plunging into his flank the sword that sets free the life, represented by the drops of the bull's blood."
In his book 'Transcendental Magic',1860, Levi offered his picture of devil in the form of 'Goat of Mendes drawing,' arguing that his image symbolist the position of non ascended / non aware humans, linked more to their bestial nature than their god like consciousness. Levi's ideas had deeply affected the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and greatly influenced its members such as Arthur Edward Waite who adopted the Baphomet sigil as the death card in his Rider Waite Tarot Deck . Levi was also a student of astronomy, astrology, and the metaphysics. When he created his first Tarot deck, he incorporated his knowledge of religions, the elements in nature (fire, water, earth, air), and what were believed to be powerful astrological events and symbols. There are even references to scriptures from The Bible shown in some of the cards. Levi claimed he created the cards as a tool to aid his students in the art of spiritual enlightenment, self improvement, and self awareness.
In the early 20th century, the Waite-Smith deck was created that because of its minimalistic Art Nouveau style became very popular. A. E. Waite was a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical order based on a -Mithraic hierarchy and initiation. It was founded in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the aim of practicing theurgy and spiritual development. The artist, Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the cards and contributed with her artistic vision to the design of the deck under the Mithraic instructions of A.E. Waite. One can get a glimpse of Waite's instructions from what he has written in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:
It appears from the testimony of Porphyry that Mythraic Mysteries depicted ... the decent of souls into generation and their emancipation or ascent there from, by which they delivered from the law of metempsychosis, one of the doctrine being that human souls are "clothed in bodies of every kind." Such an ascent connote readily enough the idea of regeneration, which has been called the Secret of the Rites. These were celebrated in caves, considered as an image of the world, and hence having two gates. That on the northern side symbolized the way of coming in, namely, by the law of generation; that on the southern side represented the way of going out and following a path of ascent from the life of humanity on earth to the life of the celestial gods... Celsus, as quoted by Origen, speaks of souls going down and up through the planetary spheres and says that in the Mithraic Initiation this is represented by "a ladder with seven gates and at its summit an eight, corresponding to Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Moon and Sun, the eights and last presumably that of the soul's deliverance.
|Bonifacio Bembo, A. A. Atanassov, Italy, 1997|
The Hermit, Kronos -Arimanius
|The Hermit, Bonifacio Bembo or family Visconti-Sforza, Tarot Cards, Italy, Milan,|
The Emperor, Zeus-Oromasdes
Zeus-Oromasdes (Ahura Mazda), Mount Nemrut - West Terrace
Zeus-Oromasdes god of a Roman Mithraic cult, originally a local Hittite-Hurrian god of fertility and thunder worshiped at Doliche (modern Dülük), in southeastern Turkey. Under Achaemenid rule (6th–4th century bc), he was identified with the Persian god Ahura Mazdā, thus becoming a god of the universe. His worship and that of his consort was gradually carried westward to Rome and other military centres, where it became extremely popular during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. In the Roman mystery religion he was not only recognized as a god of the heavens but was also believed to control military success and safety. He was usually represented standing on a bull and carrying his special weapons, the double ax and the thunderbolt.
The Sun, Apollo-Mithra
|Apollo, The Tarocchi di Mantegna|
Knight of Cups, Perseus
Perseus Beheading Medusa Benvenuto Cellini 1645-1554 Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence
Plato ascribed the race of the Persians to Perseus. According to the Greek mythology Zeus came to Perseus' mother, Danae, in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her resulting in the birth of Perseus. As a young man Perseus undertook a mission to kill Medusa the Gorgon. Plato states that Achaemenes / Perses (Hachmanesh/ Persian) was the son of the Ethiopian queen Andromeda and Perseus. In mythology, Perseus received the cap, which renders its wearer invisible, from Hades and used it in order to kill Medusa. Perseus is a large constellation that is known for its binary star system Algol ( Arabic; monster) as well as the Perseids, a famously dramatic meteor shower.
Medusa had became a cruel monster that no living thing could look at her without being turned into stone. All around the cavern where she dwelt might be seen the stony figures of men and animals which had chanced to catch a glimpse of her and had been petrified with the sight. Perseus, favoured by Athena goddess of justice and law and Hermes, the spirit of moderation, self-control, and temperance (Persian, Parsaie), the former of whom lent him her shield and the latter his winged shoes [to walk the path], approached Medusa while she slept and taking care not to look directly at her , but guided by her image reflected in the bright shield, he cut off her head and gave it to Athena.
Empress; Anahita (Aphrodites)
| Anahita , Armenia Minor, c 200-100BC. British Museum, London|
Found at the ancient city of Satala, modern Sadak, north-eastern Turkey
In Persian mythology, Anahita is the goddess of all the waters upon the earth and the source of the cosmic ocean; she drives a chariot pulled by four horses: wind, rain, cloud and sleet; her symbol is the eight-rayed star. She is regarded as the source of life... Before calling on Mithra (fiery sun), a prayer was offered to the sea goddess Anahita, whom her very name means, Clean, Pure, and Immaculate, the virgin goddess.Herodotus and the Babylonian writer Berossus (3rd cent. BCE) both equate Persian Anahita with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and procreation, while many other ancient reports identify her with the Greek virgin goddess Artemis. In the development of astrology the planet Venus was said to have its exaltation or house in the sign of Taurus (Bull). According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of virgin goddess Ananita.
She was also a goddess of magic, served by the Magi, priest-magicians whose name gives us the root word for both ‘magic’ and ‘magus’. They would meet to read their sacred texts among assemblies of worshippers and offer "holy spells" to Anahita, perhaps on the tenth day from the New Moon or during the eighth month-her sacred times.
Go to the next chapter; Chapter 9 - The Byzantine Art
- A. L. Frothingham, Diocletian and Mithra in the Roman Forum, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1914
- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, translated by C.F. Atkinson, London: Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1937
- Arthur Edward Waite, A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, Volume II, Cosimo, Inc., 2007, 1602066434, 9781602066434
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- A similar story can be seen in the Vedic literature. Namuci, who is an Asura, has to be defeated by Indra "in order that the Way may be opened up for Manu,(man)", since the Asura himself does not cease hostilities towards man. Indra eventually twists off the head of Namuci , so that the powers of darkness be subjected to the sons of light. The legend occur in the formless time: not only in that it takes place before the creation of Time (since, in separating the head of Namuci from its body, Indra sets the sun in place, separates rta (= satya) from anrta, creates the cosmos, and only then, in so doing, establishes the distinction between Time and Eternity). The legend's subject is the constant stress of eternally opposed forces striving to actualize themselves. By the slaying of the Asuras, the cosmos is set in order; but in the ordered world Asuras are continually slain: creation and destruction coexist eternally. The Ahura and the Ahreman, both children of Zurvan, entered upon their fathei's inheritance, Ahura let darkness go and held fast to light, the Ahreman relinquished light and held fast to darkness. The caveat may here be necessary that darkness (anrta) and light (satya) , although these opposed principles as Fowler writes; "are not always as untruth is to truth, but sometimes only as "potentiality" is to "actuality" or to what we in common language call "reality" (i.e. ens concretum quidditati sensibili)." he argues that this division of the divine bi-unity will be necessary only to add that what the Vedas are about is primarily just this partition of the Divine Unity and man's resultant need to be made " whole" and that it is the same "story " that is told over and over again in Vedic scripture. Murray Fowler,The Role of Surā in the Myth of Namuci, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Mar., 1942)
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- Boyce, Mary (1957). "Some reflections on Zurvanism". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London: SOAS) 19/2: 304–316.
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- Shaki, Mansour (2002). "Dahri". Encyclopaedia Iranica. New York: Mazda Pub. pp. 35–44.
- Zaehner, Richard Charles (1940). "A Zervanite Apocalypse". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London: SOAS) 10/2: 377–398.
- Zaehner, Richard Charles (1955). Zurvan, a Zoroastrian dilemma. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-8196-0280-9 (1972 Biblo-Moser ed).
- Zaehner, Richard Charles (1961). The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. New York: Putnam. ISBN 1-84212-165-0 (2003 Phoenix ed). A section of the book is available online. Several other websites have duplicated this text, but include an "Introduction" that is very obviously not by Zaehner.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.