Drawing 1

The key to Mithraic symbolism lies in understanding how the people of the ancient world imagined the cosmos. First and foremost, they believed the earth to be at the center of the universe, with the stars embedded on the inside of a great sphere that surrounded the earth. Near this great sphere of stars—but somewhat closer to the earth—were the sun and the planets.

The ancients were conscious of one feature of the cosmic sphere that is little known today—the celestial equator (see drawing 1, at top). Just as the earth has an equator encircling it halfway between its north and south poles, so too does an equator encircle the great sphere of the cosmos halfway between the celestial north and south poles. Because the earth was believed to be at the very center of the cosmos, the earth’s equator and the celestial equator were seen as parallel.

Each day, it was thought, the cosmic sphere and the sun rotate around the earth. In addition to this daily rotation, the ancients were aware of a second movement in the heavens. Remember that the sun was believed to be somewhat in front of the sphere of stars and not actually embedded in it. As a result, the sun and the stars rotate around the earth at somewhat different rates. At any given time of year, the sun was positioned in front of a particular constellation of stars. The sun and that constellation would rotate around the earth daily at about the same rate—but not at the exact same rate. Over a period of weeks the sun would begin to shift its apparent position in the sky from being in front of one constellation to being in front of a neighboring constellation.

The ancients followed the sun’s annual shift across the heavens with extreme interest. The group of stars in front of which the sun seems to pass yearly are probably the best-known features of the sky: They are the constellations of the zodiac (see drawing 2, below). These constellations were named after the characters and objects they resemble: Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, and so on. When the sun is in front of Taurus, it is said to be “in” Taurus. Of course the sun cannot be seen to be “in” Taurus because its brightness obscures what is behind it; the sun’s position at any given time is extrapolated from the late night sky: The ancients noted which constellation was visible on the eastern horizon just before sunrise; familiar with the order of the zodiac, they could easily calculate which constellation was due to rise next even though it would be obscured by the rising sun.

Drawing 2

Two points along the sun’s annual path are especially noteworthy. Twice a year the sun passes through the celestial equator. Drawing 3 (below) shows the sun’s position on March 21. The sun’s daily rotation around the earth on that day takes place entirely on the celestial equator. That day is the spring equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator again six months later, on September 21, the autumn equinox.

Drawing 3

This understanding of the movement of the heavens served the ancients well for many centuries. But a discovery in about 128 B.C. by the astronomer Hipparchus wreaked havoc on this cosmology and precipitated a major intellectual crisis. Hipparchus discovered that the equinoxes did not always occur in the same constellations. For example, although the spring equinox took place in Aries in Hipparchus’s day, 2,000 years earlier the spring equinox had occurred in Taurus (as shown in drawings 2 and 3). The equinoxes—the points at which the sun’s annual migration crossed the celestial equator—were in fact slowly drifting backwards through the zodiac. To the two previously known movements of the heavens—the daily rotation of the sun and stars around the earth and the sun’s annual journey through the stars—was added a third, previously unsuspected movement, the migration of the equinoxes.

What could account for such a shift in the heavens? The ancients could detect no change in the behavior of the sun from year to year, so they were left with only one other option: Something was moving the entire sphere of the heavens (see drawing 4, below)! This power, it was reasoned, must come from beyond the heavens and be greater than all the previously known gods, who were typically associated with features within the heavenly sphere.

Drawing 4

The discovery of the shifting of the equinoxes is the key to understanding the symbolism of the Mithraic cult, author David Ulansey says in the accompanying article. The prime symbol of Mithraism—Mithras slaying the bull—represents, in celestial code, the movement of the spring equinox from Taurus the Bull to Aries the Ram. That shift of the spring equinox was the shift that had occured closest to the time of the rise of Mithraism. The god Mithras, who slayed the bull, was the power credited with moving the spring equinox out of Taurus. It was he, above all the gods, who was most worthy of worship.

Ulansey bolsters his case by noting that the other symbols frequently found in the Mithraic cult—a dog, a snake, a raven and a scorpion—represent exactly those constellations—Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus and Scorpio—that were on the celestial equator when the spring equinox was in Taurus (see drawing 3). The symbols of the Mithraic cult, in short, are a snapshot of the heavens at the moment when the great god Mithras, from beyond the heavens, moves the entire cosmos.