Sunday, May 5, 2019


Olympia Panagiotidou, Roger Beck, The Roman Mithras Cult: A Cognitive Approach. Scientific studies of religion: inquiry and explanation. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. xi, 226. ISBN 9781472567383. £82.62.

Reviewed by Kilian Mallon, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a showcase of, and, in many ways, a manifesto for, cognitive approaches to the study of ancient religion. The work is relevant reading not just for those interested in Mithras cult in the Roman Empire but also for anyone interested in the theory and method of examining ancient religious experience, symbolism, time, and space as well. Panagiotidou and Beck wrote the introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 in tandem (pp. 1–68), while Panagiotidou wrote the second half of the book (pp. 69–170) as sole author, yet they retain plural pronouns throughout the work, a pattern which I follow below. The work is based on cognitive science of religion (CSR), an interdisciplinary union of cognitive science, psychology, computer science, and other fields, with historical and humanistic studies, though, as the authors point out, not one that has been popular among classicists. They suggest that this may be the result of distaste toward the uniformitarian assumption that there are common 'cognitive constraints' between past and present and between different cultures or religions (p. 5).

Beck's 2006 The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire laid out many of the book's foundational interpretations and made an initial foray into cognitive approaches. The authors also acknowledge the work of, among others, Luther Martin, whose essays are gathered in the 2015 volume The Mind of Mithraists, published by the same Bloomsbury series 'Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation'. The introduction sets out well the theoretical landscape and methodology. They use Mithras cult as a case study because, 'to a greater extent than any of its contemporaries… [it] relied on expressing and transmitting its precepts through complex systems of symbols [and through] the design of its highly idiosyncratic sacred space and sacred furnishings' (p. 11).

This kind of work can raise eyebrows, and the authors make sure to address likely criticisms in the preface and introduction. They articulate the argument well: human cognition is little different now than in the ancient world, and, consequently, many insights from empirical experiments in fields such as cognitive science are applicable to the ancient mind. Cognition in this work does not mean thoughts or experience generally, but specifically how people 'acquire, store, transform, and use knowledge of their surroundings' (p. 4). The authors convincingly argue that, not only are the insights and methods of CSR valid, they are preferable to the usual commonsensical assumptions that historians typically make to reach the same ends. They are frank about the fact that the book does not 'propose definitive answers to the historical questions pertaining to the Mithras cult' (p. ix). Rather, they will produce 'statements about what would have been more or less likely to make "sense" to the initiates and what would fit the facts of the Mithras cult as we know them' (p. ix). They depart from earlier scholarship that has attempted to forge complete accounts of a Mithraic belief system in and of itself. The book, therefore, focuses on the so-called apprehension of the cult's images and symbols, not just the meanings of the symbols themselves. This has been the aim of the field, as they point out, for a long time now, and therefore the originality of the work lies in its detailed development of arguments using concepts from cognitive science.

In the first chapter ('The World View of the Mithras Cult'), they lay out Michael Kearney's world-view model. Using Mithraic linguistic formulae, narratives, and mithraeum spaces as evidence, they show how the cult embedded a world-view in the minds of initiates that would have influenced behavior beyond the mithraea. This world-view, they argue, used universal world-view categories to convey an actuality about the world. Mithraic rituals played on cognitive processes of memory enhancement, and expressions in iconography and statuary would have reinforced meanings in the minds of initiates. However, since ancient sources suggest that Mithraic rituals did not involve a single strong narrative but rather episodes of myth interchangeable in order, the cult did not exploit every possible cognitive trick. This lack of narrative is interesting within the authors' framework, since it requires that the ethos of the cult be transmitted in another way, that is, through the whole world-view itself rather than through specific rituals commemorating episodes from a story.

The second chapter ('The Self in the Cult of Mithras') focuses on self-perception, particularly how cognitive studies have demonstrated that conceptual metaphors and narrative structures of experience shape our consciousness and our sense of self. Mithraic initiation consisted of narratives and metaphorical journeys which came to form and define personal life stories and long-term identities. The authors follow this theoretical introduction with an outline of the grade hierarchy and ordering of ranks and celestial objects. They conclude that it is the cognitive pattern of source-path-goal that structures the gradual ascent through the Mithras cult, in some cases a metaphorical journey through the hierarchies, and in others a more-than-metaphorical journey through the heavens.

The third chapter ('Space and Time in the Mithras Cult') begins with a detailed discussion of how embodied cognition, memory, image- schemas (container, path, etc.), and body-schemas (above, below, in front, behind, etc.) allow us to comprehend space through egocentric and allocentric spatial maps. Our minds extend this spatial mapping through metaphoric analogy to create our perception of time. After this, the authors use the physical space of the mithraeum in tandem with primary textual sources to examine the metaphorical conceptions initiates had within the physical space. This leads to interesting arguments, for example that the Ptolemaic cosmological model is an allocentric map which was adopted into the design of mithraea. The authors propose that mithraea used both allocentric and egocentric mapping and were constructed in such a way that erudite knowledge of cosmology was not required. They argue that all initiates, regardless of education, would have had similar access to the many interpretations of the cult's rituals and the blended mental spaces of the mithraea.

The fourth chapter ('The Scene of the Tauroctony as a Symbol System') begins with Charles Sanders Peirce's theory of signs and outlines in detail the semiotic basis for their argument. The authors marshal the scene of the tauroctony to argue that the use of many images to mean the same thing (polysemy of signs), the use of multiple meanings in a single image, and even the use of contradictory meanings can be explained in light of three cognitive processes: iconic, indexical, and symbolic interpretation. The exegesis here draws heavily from Beck's 2006 work. They argue that the lack of a clear Mithras mythology might have opened up interpretative freedom for initiates, and the chapter moves on to contextualize successfully the tauroctony as a star-chart in cognitive terms. It concludes by arguing that the wider symbolic system that the initiates learned in the cult made pre-existing difference in education irrelevant.

The fifth chapter ('The Communities of Mithraists: From Personal Self to Social Identity') uses Harvey Whitehouse and Jonathan A. Lanman's theory of modes of religiosity, which has grown in popularity recently among anthropologists and archaeologists interested in exploring the role of religion and ritual in social cohesion. This idea argues for two distinct modes of religiosity: doctrinal and imagistic. In broadest terms, the former uses a central founder, priests, established doctrine, and frequent low-intensity rituals to form social cohesion. The latter achieves this without these features, instead relying on infrequent, dysphoric, and emotionally arousing rituals. On the grounds that Mithras cult had only a shadowy founder, lacked doctrine and priests (the grade hierarchy, the authors argue, should be seen as a different phenomenon), and invoked episodic memory of dysphoric rituals in an emotionally arousing space, the chapter confirms that the Mithras cult should be placed within the imagistic mode. It goes a step further, however, in demonstrating how the cult's secrecy was an integral factor in ensuring social cohesion.

Overall, the book advances the study of how the Mithras cult's complex symbolic and spatial systems worked through the minds of the initiates. It shows how the potential incompleteness and multivalence of signs was not problematic but was, in fact, an important part of the individual initiate's experience and of the functioning of the cult itself. For instance, the lack of a strong narrative around the tauroctony allowed for a multivocality that deepened the initiate's experience and ensured the levels of secrecy that secured the social cohesion of the cult. Additionally, an important merit of their approach (p. 38) is that it rejects any preordained separation between the cognitive abilities of elites and non-elites in the mithraeum. While the social status and education levels of members varied, there was no difference in their cognitive capacity for apprehension, even if knowledge levels of the symbols or stories varied. One of the strongest merits of the book is its continual and detailed outlining of theoretical and logical arguments in a way that is didactic, explanatory, and interesting. Archaeologists not specialized in cognitive science, however, might find it hard to gauge how widely accepted the framework and concepts invoked are among cognitive scientists. Nonetheless, the book succeeds in laying out the value of cognitive approaches for provoking new ideas about ancient religion generally, and, likewise, the chapters provide thought- provoking insights into the operations of the Mithras cult. The endnotes are detailed, helpful, and interesting reading in themselves. It will be exciting to see how this work connects in the future with phenomenology and cognitive archaeology more broadly, with historical and regional change, and with other ancient cults and religions. This book is a highly recommendable intervention to the study of religious phenomena in the ancient world that will make the reader reflect critically on their theoretical and methodological stances.

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