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notitia

Porphyry’s Cave of Nymphs
and the Cult of Mithras

Between the 1st and 4th centuries, Mithraism developed throughout the Roman world. Much material exists, but textual evidence is scarce. The only ancient work that fills this gap is Porphyry's intense and complex essay.
 
 
22 Aug 2021
 
Nymphs and Satyr (detail) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Nymphs and Satyr (detail) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Public domain

Between the 1st and 4th centuries CE the mysteries of Mithras developed throughout the Roman world. While there is a wealth of material evidence for Mithraic cult, the textual evidence is scarce and nearly all witnesses are questionable. Most authors who mention Mithras are Christians disparaging the cult; pagan sources tend to be late and ill informed; both provide much misleading information about the cult. The earliest surviving literary text that can be related to Mithras is in Statius. The Latin poet, writing around 80 AD portrays Mithras as “Seu Persei sub rupibus antri indignata sequi torquentem cornua Mithram: twisting the disobedient horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave.” (Thebaid, 1.719-20).

A 5th century grammarian, Lactantius Placidus, comments on the passage in Statius: Lactantius says the Persians worship the Sun in caves; horse-drawn Sun is known as Mithras who is worshipped in the cave as suffering eclipse. Lactantius, after having identified Mithras with the Sun and the horns of the bull with the Moon, describes Mithras taming the bull to follow him by capturing its horns with his two hands. Mithras in fact holds the bull by its nostrils with his left hand and stabs it with his right in the tauroctony, the bull-slaying scene as you see in the image below.

Relief of Tauroctony from Sidon
Galdo Trounchky


In his commentaries on sermons composed by Gregory of Nazianzus, (330-390 C.E.), Pseudo-Nonnus, an early sixth century author, gives an account of Mithras and his mysteries.

Nonnus tells us the number of stages of Mithraic initiations, which in his words are punishment or torments (κολάσεων), are eighty. However, Celsus defines a ladder with seven gates which represents the ascent of souls through the seven planetary spheres and the sphere of the fixed stars in the mysteries (Origen, Contra Celsum 6.22). ‘Ladder with seven gates’ is connected with the seven levels of Mithraic initiation, Corvus, Nymphus, Miles, Leo, Perses, Heliodromus and Pater.

The unique ancient work that fulfills the lack of the literal texts for Mithras and his Cult is Porphyry’s intense, complex essay including detailed allegorical interpretations on eleven lines of the Odyssey (13.102-112), On the Cave of the Nymphs (De antro Nympharum).

When the ship arrives at the harbor of Phorcys, the Phaeacians leave Odysseus still in a deep sleep and all his goods given by Alcinous near the olive tree at the head of the harbor and they return to their country. Homer, Porphyry’s Theologos[1], describes the cave near the olive tree by these verses:
At the head of harbor is an olive tree with many leaves, in close to this a lovely cave, full of mist, sacred to the nymphs called naiads. In the cave are mixing bowls and amphoras made of stone and in them bees store up honey. There are very long stone beams where the nymphs weave dark-red clothes, a wonder to see. The waters always flow. The cave has two double doors, the one from the North, a way for men to go down, the other toward the South is more divine. Mortals don’t enter by this one, but the way of immortals.

Homer, Od. 13.102-112


These lines describing the surroundings where Odysseus landed give the inspiration to Porphyry for his On the Cave of the Nymphs. He analyses this passage by transforming it into the context of a more general interpretation of the Odyssey[2].

The Odyssey which tells of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, is a narrative of the history of the human soul. This soul, after being embodied in the sensible world which is related to “the boundless sea of diversity”[3] and where all kinds of pleasures try to beguile it and keep it from achieving its purpose, reverts back to the point of its departure, the intelligible world. At the beginning of the essay, Porphyry thinks the ambiguity of the passage indicates that it has some secret messages, as is a common proposition held by allegorical commentators[4].

Porphyry quotes from Cronius, according to Cronius, the quote, the description of the cave isn’t based on the actual facts, since such a cave doesn’t actually exist in the geographical records of the island. On the other hand, it is also hard to believe that Homer would fabricate such a cave having two double gates, the one for descent of humankind, the other for ascent of the gods (actually immortals) for the sake of poetica licentia. For this reason, Homer must have narrated allegorically and pointed out something else, end of quote.

After putting in order the succesive questions as the outline of his essay, Porphyry justifies Cronius’ statement that Homer can’t describe a fictional place at random, merely to entertain us. In this example the poet speaks in riddles and adds the olive tree near to the cave for the purpose of a mysterious intention.

Porphyry stops referring to Cronius at this point and proves the geographical presence of the cave with great pleasure by quoting from Artemidorus[5].

However, the actual existence of the cave doesn’t change the fact that Homer speaks allegorically, or that his intention hints at something else, so the hidden meaning or the intention of the poet must still be examined. Because neither the ancients dedicate the places of worship without mystical signification nor does Homer describe them superficially.

Grounding his idea on the fact that it is required to recreate what Homer’s poem may have signified in Homer’s time in order to understand him, Porphyry reconstructs the senses of the cave and the elements in it, assigned by the ancients. He particularly examines the caves within the philosophical and religious tradition. The notion of the cave constitutes the most crucial and important part of his essay, and its connection with the Cosmos. The cave itself depicting the material world is analysed with reference to Plato, Empedocles, the Pythagoreans and the Orphic tradition[6].

Porphyry says that the cave isn’t only the symbol of the Cosmos, but also the symbol of invisible powers, because of its darkness and the invisible essence of these powers. For example; Kronos makes ready a cave for himself in the ocean to hide his children; similarly, Demeter brings up Persephone in a cave among nymphs. Again, the hymn to Apollo, shows that caves were also dedicated to nymphs (8.6-12).

According to Porphyry, first the Pythagoreans and Plato after them called the Cosmos a cave or grotto. The powers guiding souls say in Empedocles:
ἠλύθομεν τόδ’ ὑπ’ ἂντρον ὑπόστεγον: We have arrived here in this covered cave. (8.16)
In the seventh book of the Republic, Plato likens the cave symbolising the earth to a prison, which is made up of shadows, (8.17-20; Rep. 7.514a2-5, 517a8-b4). Furthermore, caves have always been associated with the worship of both Greeks and Persians. Porphyry declares that as you see in no. VIII, Zoroaster is the first to dedicate a natural cave to Mithras; Porphyry calls his Mithras by the common epithet, ‘the Maker and Father of this Universe,’ with Plato’s Demiurge (Timaeus, 28c).

On the one hand, theologians made caves as a symbol of intelligible cosmos, because it is unapparent to the senses, unchangeable and unmovable in itself. On the other hand, caves are symbols of sensible cosmos because of their darkness, rockiness and liquidity, not because of their shapes, for all caves aren’t spherical. They are made of earthly substance and surrounded by a single mass whose outside boundary is limitless, and whose dark interiors make them difficult to understand.

Speaking of Homer’s double cave, the flowing of the everlasting waters in the cave shows that it represents the symbol of the sensible essence. Porphyry says water is specifically associated with the birth of souls. Hence, the cave is dedicated to the naiad nymphs whose names are also used to point out the souls descending into genesis. Souls need moisture to descend into the material universe. If so, the symbol of the souls proceeding towards the genesis are naiad nymphs that are presiding over the water; besides, brides to be wed for genesis are called nymphs traditionally. Heraclitus says,
ψυχῇσι φάναι τερψιν μὴ θανατον ὑγρῇσι γενέσθαι: it is a delight, not death, for souls to become moist. (10.20-21)
For the descent into genesis is a pleasure for souls. Souls are thought to be similar to misty air and to take their essence from air. That is why Homer’s cave as a symbol of the material universe is lovely, but at the same time full of mist and shadowy.

The cave in question has two entrances; one open to the north for human beings to enter, the other open to the south for the immortals. What is the meaning of a cave with two Gates and which gate is for men, which gate is for gods? The cave is the image and the symbol of the world, everything has to be moved to a cosmic measure. One entrance is the tropic of Cancer or the summer solstice which is associated with cold, as the other is the tropic of Capricorn or the winter solstice which is associated with heat. That’s why the summer solstice is the northernmost point on the ecliptic and the winter solstice the southernmost. The souls coming into generation go away from the realm of the fixed stars and descend to Earth, but their descent must take place at a particular point: Cancer assigned to the Moon which is closest to the earth. The souls that go down from the heaven of the fixed stars at once aren’t pure souls anymore, for this reason Homer righteously describes them as men. After their death, the souls moving upward get the opposite route. They come to the heaven of fixed stars through the constellation of Capricorn. Capricorn is assigned to Saturn which is the most remote planet from the earth. And since these souls are removed from their bodies, they can be marked gods. Cancer and Capricorn, the tropical points in the course of the sun, are commonly called the Gates of the Sun. The Milky Way crosses at the signs Cancer and Capricorn. (28.26-29.1-6)

What about the place of Mithras in the Cosmos? The cosmic place of Mithras is at the equinoxes in Aries and Libra (24.9-10). Therefore, as a creator and lord of genesis he controls the processes of descent and ascent, of genesis and apogenesis, which begin and end at the gates of the solstices. Mithras carries the sword of Aries, the sign of Mars and also rides on a bull, the sign of Taurus which is assigned to Venus. Porphyry tells us that the ancients called the priestesses of Demeter Bees, as initiates of the goddess, and Kore they called the Honey-Sweet and the Moon who presides over genesis called the Bee, especially since the Moon is a bull and the exaltation[7] of the Moon is Taurus (18.1-4). Consequently, the bull in the tauroctony can be associated with genesis.

Porphyry declares that the various “symbols” that Homer has placed in the cave belong either to water divinities or to souls in general. The stone mixing bowls and amphoras are suitable both for the waters that spring from the stone and for the souls in the process of materilisation since they are in realm of matter, of which water and stone are the symbols. As the mixing bowls (kraters) are the symbol of springs, which are placed next to Mithras instead of a spring (17.25), it is also the place where the Soul of the Universe is blended and mixed in the Timaeus (41d).

The symbol of honey which are stored in the mixing bowls and amphoras, are analysed at all points. There is a connection between genesis and honey as follows: in Orphic poetry, honey has seductive and intoxicating effect just like wine. The ancient goddess Night advises Zeus to make Kronos drunk with honey and to tie him up (16.8-10). When Kronos is tied up, he is castrated like Ouranos. Here Orpheus implies that the divine principles are trapped by pleasure. Honey is the symbols of both pleasure connected with descent into genesis and of death as a sweet remedy of the bitterness of life. Bees are symbols of souls descending into genesis and the moon is called a bee as the ‘leader’ of genesis (προστάτιδα).

Well, what is the connection between honey and the cult? Honey is related with at least one of the Mithraic grades; Porphyry states that after the hands of the lions have been purified by honey in the Mysteries, they are advised to keep their hands pure from everything painful, harmful and loathsome; the tongues that are purified by honey get away from saying wrong things. Honey which is fiery liquid inimical to water is offered to Mithras (τῷ Πέρσῃ) as the preserver of fruits (15.25-32).

There is an olive tree near the cave. It denotes Athena or wisdom. Porphyry remarks that the olive tree near the cave bears a much deeper meaning, after examining every element of the cave elaborately. From the beginning of his essay, Porphyry expresses repeatedly that the description of Homer isn’t random; and now his emphasis comes to the light more and more at the end of his essay. Homer’s cave having two gates is the model of the physical Cosmos and it never comes into existence by chance. Rather Cosmos is the product of the god’s mind and intelligent nature and the olive tree near the cave which is the symbol of the Cosmos, is the symbol of the wisdom of the god. For the olive tree is the plant of Athena representing wisdom. Furthermore, the olive tree which is the symbol of Athena born from the head of Zeus is at the head of the harbor.

Odysseus who completes his long and laborious journey with the help of Athena, leaves all his precious goods and clothes in the cave at the suggestion of Athena; now he is freed from the sea. In other words, he is the soul enlightened by wisdom, trying to get rid of its enemies, the passions.

This is the general meaning of Homer’s verses. Odysseus represents the soul descended from the heavens into the genesis, the soul that has become embodied but will return one day to its celestial native land. Odysseus’ long journey on the seas is an image of this exile and suffering of the soul in the land of matter. The soul can ultimately become free only when it arrives in a world completely released from the sea and consequently from matter[8].

The method of interpretation of myths applied by Porphyry can be summarized as follows: without regard to their genre, texts having to do with gods and daemons or in the broad sense of the term, with superior beings and human souls, are encoded, for they are covered by the seal of secrecy[9]. Philosophers know this, especially, when their primary sense is questionable and cannot be interpreted literally. In order to comprehend their truth, one must understand that this surface meaning is an indirect expression of a deep meaning, kept for those who are capable and worthy of apprehending it. Therefore, these texts express through enigmas and symbols a certain number of truths about the gods and daemons. Hence myths are connected with mysteries.

However, one should be aware of the right key to be able to decipher them. This key can be discovered in a Pythagorean kind of Platonism and is established on three basic elements: The differentiation between sensible and intelligible, the existence of essential rules that explain the intelligible and the fate of the human soul experienced in the cycles of rotating embodiment and separation continuously. Pythagoras and Plato have the key that renders it possible to comprehend the other texts because of two reasons: firstly, they have been initiated to the real mysteries and secondly, they have gone to Egypt where the source of all civilization is.

Finally, Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs embraces a wide range of disciplines such as Cosmology, Philosophy, Astrology, Allegory, Symbolism, Mystery Cult, Mythology. He shows up nearly all cosmological commentaries. I believe that the way to understand the doctrine of the Cult of Mithras is to examine it in the context of Porphyry’s unique work and within the connection he established with Platonic, Orphic, Pythagoric teachings.

References

  1. Lamberton, Robert. Homer Theologian Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, 1986
  2. Brisson, Luc. How Philosophers Saved Myths Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, 2004
  3. Plato. Statesman
  4. Struck, Peter, T.. Allegory and ascent in Neoplatonism, 2010
  5. Porphyry. On the Cave of the Nymphs, 4.4-10
  6. Porphyry. On the Cave of the Nymphs, 5-9
  7. The exaltations and humiliations constituted an astrological system whereby each of the planets was allotted a sign of the zodiac in which it was powerful and another, directly opposite, in which it was weak.
  8. Porphyry. On the Cave of the Nymphs, 35
  9. Brisson, Luc. How Philosophers Saved Myths Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, 2004

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