Posted in Ancient Rome, film scores, History, movies, music, writing

Now We Are Free

Next on the list of things I’m obsessing about:

This video pulls together three tracks, “Honor Him”, “Elysium” and “Now We Are Free”  from the movie “Gladiator.” It’s bittersweet, but somehow celebratory. “Gladiator” is one of my favorite movies ever. I would follow Maximus into Hades if he asked.

These particular pieces were composed by Lisa Gerrard and Klaus Badelt, and Hans Zimmer. The vocals are all Lisa (of Dead Can Dance, who are touring again).  Don’t try to understand or translate the lyrics, they’re in a language that Lisa made up and started using around the age of 12, when she would talk to God (technically known as ‘idioglossia’, an idiosyncratic language). I love the idea of this. You have to listen at a heart level, there’s no direct translation into English. This site gives what is apparently a phonetic rendering of the words. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it seems about right. Some of the rest of the soundtrack is classic Hans Zimmer, you can hear foreshadowing of “Pirates of the Caribbean” in one segment, but these three tracks are all Lisa. Has she been called a mystic? I don’t know, but she seems to fit the description. Yes I know the movie came out twelve years ago, but I didn’t obsess about things back then the way I do now. I was reminded of it several months ago when I ran across someone claiming Enya sang it, then I had to know everything (you know how I get).

Idioglossia seems to differ from glossolalia in that it is something children seem to use more than anyone else, not always in context of religion or religious fervor, the way glossolalia is. Glossolalia is also known as the language of angels, or ‘speaking in tongues.’  There’s also something called xenoglossia where someone is able to speak or write a language they never learned by natural means.

I had always associated glossolalia with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, I had no idea the phenomenon was so widespread. James Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake was written using an idioglossia. No wonder no one can read it. It’s like writing your diary in a secret code and wondering why no one can read it (like  Beatrix Potter). Interesting phenomenon among creative people.

Ave atque vale, Maximus.

Posted in Ancient Rome, History, Mithraism, religion, writing

Mithras, Lord of Light

Another tangential interest that has sprung up from that movie is an interest in the ancient religion of Mithraism. This cult was very popular with the Roman soldiers and the poor for roughly four hundred hundred years. This is meant as the barest introduction to Mithraism as I’m just beginning to learn about it. The pre-eminent work on the religion is by Franz Cumont, a Belgian scholar who wrote a two-volume work on it in 1896 (English translation 1903). It’s still considered the definitive work on it as far as I have been able to find out.

Unfortunately, the actual beliefs and practices are mostly lost to time. Their rites and theology were never written down. It was a very secretive cult so it’s hard to know what they believed or what the actual rites consisted of. The central figure was of course Mithras, called “Lord of Light”. In general, it seems to have been a males-only religion, although there is some speculative evidence that women did follow it as well.

In a nutshell, Mithras, or Mithra, is thought to have originally been a Persian god, with roots in Zoroastrianism. Mithras is the Latin rendition of the name, from the Greek “Μίθρας”. Erm, ok.

Anyway, it seems there is some disagreement in the scholarly community as to whether the Mithras worshipped by the Romans was in fact the same god worshipped in Persia. David Ulansey points out:

Thus, if the god Mithras of the Roman religion was actually the Iranian god Mithra, we should expect to find in Iranian mythology a story in which Mithra kills a bull. However, the fact is that no such Iranian myth exists: in no known Iranian text does Mithra have anything to do with killing a bull.

We’ll leave that discussion to those who know more. For my part, I’m good either way.

So what was Mithraism? It was a mystery religion, with seven grades of initiation. No written records of what actually took place or what the rites were has survived, if indeed anyone ever wrote them down. Most of what is generally believed about it comes from extant temples, from the mosaics inlaid, stutuary, wall paintings, and various debris found in the ruins of temples. Rites were conducted in a subterranean temple, called a mithraeum.

Mithraeum in Ostia

You can see a number of these located in Ostia (outside Rome) here.

Each mithraeum had a central altar which featured a statue of the tauroctony, or a depiction of Mithras killing a bull. The bull is thought to be Taurus, which appears to represent Mithras slaying Taurus, thereby bringing about the end of winter and the beginning of spring, rebirth symbolism.

This one near Vienna contains a font for holy water:

This mithræum, like all others of the same style, is underground. Before the great bas-relief of Mithra slaying the bull are two altars, the one large and square in form, the other smaller and richly ornamented. The small statute on the left is Mithra being born from the rock. At the right of the entrance we see the lion of Mithra and at the left is a font for holy water. The two torch-bearers stand on the pillars which separate the aisles. The mithræum is approached by a stairway and through a square hall (or pronaos) which is considerably larger than the sanctum itself (T. et M., p. 493).

The seven grades of initiation were: Raven (corax), Occult (cryphius), Soldier Lion (leo), Persian (Perses), Runner of the Sun (heliodromus), and Father (pater). Initiates partook of a ritual meal involving drinking wine and eating bread (symbolic of the body and blood of Mithras).

The greatest number of followers seems to have been in Rome, but mithraea have been found all over Europe: Germany, Britain, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Numidia (modern day Algieria). Suffice to say, wherever Roman soldiers went, no doubt Mithras went as well.

Some of the more interesting things about this cult are the parallels to another cult that arose later and seems to have co-opted several aspects. For instance:

Some believe the birth of Mithras was celebrated on December 25, although others dispute this as Sol Invictus being a separate and distinct holiday. But people like to draw the parallel.

The highest grade was known as “Father.”

In some legends about Mithras, he is said to have been born of a virgin. Other myths tell of him being born from a rock. This image shows him rising out of the rock under an arch showing the signs of the zodiac.

Followers shared bread and wine, in a ritual act of consuming  the body and blood of Mithras. An inscription found on a tablet reads, He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.

Any of this sounding familiar? Kind of hints at a pagan basis for some Christian beliefs and practices.

Each mithraeum was autonomous with no central authority, so it definitely diverges in that respect from Christianity. There was a lot of co-opting going on in them thar days, to make the new religion more palatable to adherents of the old ways. Some of the more paranoid types even suggest the Statue of Liberty is a Mithraic representation. I think that’s stretching it, but what do I know? I lost my tinfoil hat.