Posted in History, Holidays, music, writing

Irish-American Heritage Month

Everyone knows (well, those who can keep track of holidays at least. My ex-husband never knew when Halloween was. Surprised him every year. But anyway…) March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, and the stores are full of all sorts of ridiculous green things, kind of like Mardi Gras with nothing but green. Chicago dyes its river green for the occasion, green beer gets served in pseudo-Irish pubs (also known as ‘plastic Paddies’)  in the U.S. (seriously, *blech*), New York holds its famous parade and everyone wears green and gets to pretend they’re Irish for the day. I understand none of this nonsense used to go on in Ireland. It was a holy day of obligation when Catholics attended Mass, and would have a special family meal, so it was more like Easter or Christmas than a drunken street party. They started holding parades to appease the visiting Americans who didn’t understand why there were no parades.

As a person of Irish descent, I can appreciate the celebration of Ireland, which is pretty much what it’s morphed into over the years, but as a Pagan, I gotta say I am not so taken with what Patrick did to Ireland. So I’m doing things a little differently this year. There will be no St. Patrick’s Day post. I will instead celebrate all things Irish as often as I can.

March is designated “Irish History Month” in Britain, with the intention of promoting “a greater understanding of Ireland and the Irish, to value the many positive contributions that Irish people have made to life in Britain, and to introduce new audiences to the vibrancy of Irish arts and culture.”

Over here, we have the obscure and little-known Irish-American Heritage Month. The month of March is dedicated to  appreciating the contributions of Irish-Americans. Apparently George H.W. Bush made the first designation in 1991, and it has been so decreed every year since, to very little fanfare.

Little known fact: The Scottish Highlands were originally settled by Irish. The old Latin name for Ireland was ‘Scotia’, and, you guessed it, gave us “Scotland.” Which goes to show the Romans were well aware of Ireland, so why they never got around to invading/settling there is anyone’s guess.

If you’re Irish, celebrate your heritage this month. If you’re not, or aren’t sure, I’m sure the Irish will adopt you. They absorbed most of the invaders (Vikings, Normans).

This here video has it all: The Chieftains, Carlos Nuñez, tin whistles, fiddling, uillean pipes, the Galician gaeta (another form of bagpipes, also pumped by elbow), and some amazing step dancing. As near as I can figure out, this was a televised show called Concertos das Estrelas from 2004. Nuñez is from Galicia, a Celtic region in the northwest corner of Spain (not to be confused with the Eastern European Galicia, a region on the east side of the Carpathian mountains). He’s the younger guy playing the penny whistle in the beginning with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, and later we see each of them playing pipes: Carlos on the gaeta, and Paddy with the Irish uillean pipes. Don’t miss the step dancers about 4 1/2 minutes in.

And as Frank Delaney tweeted out last St. Patrick’s Day, “Getting drunk doesn’t mean you’re Irish; it means you’re drunk.”

Éirinn go Brách!

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.