Mithraism: A Good Time

Three friends of forty years standing get together about twice every decade. This has been my experience. We met in our teens—boarding school and first year of college—and are now squarely in middle age.

Boarding school is either a benign or toxic form of neglect, but neglect in any case. This has little to do with Mithraism. Please observe in these pictures the signs and symbols of ancient times, unconsciously expressed perhaps, but vivid nonetheless.

First, we have wine. The origin of ritual and celebratory wine is sacrificial animal blood—mostly from cattle and sheep. The bull formed the basis of the Mithraic cult, which blended later with Greek religion and heretical Judaism to form Christianity. During the late Roman Empire the entire Mediterranean was awash with cults. The enormous population of slaves from every corner of the world—largely the vanquished of the Greco-Roman empires—mixed with dispossessed soldiers, stuck far from home awaiting pay that never comes. As a “home-like”, Messianic, universal religion, Christianity supplanted Mithraism after a couple of centuries—a long time then as now.

The two figures on the top of the magnificent headpiece represent the primal “pair” or “twin”, as everpresent in consciousness as it is in physics. In this case (1st century A.D.), it represents Castor and Pollux, also known as the Gemini or celestial twins. They had a great influence with the Roman soldier adherents since, in my speculation, they corresponded in the minds of the soldiers to Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. Like Castor and Pollux, they were conceived by a deity.

The four mace heads—two on each side—that complete her crown were also familiar to soldier and slave alike, and exuded power. She is an Aphrodite Mithraic goddess composite, since her necklaces are Greek, her headpiece Roman (Aphrodite’s counterpoint was Venus), and her face—specifically the eyes—Egyptian in style. Mighty Egypt!

Many soldiers—families of them in some cases—from the Greek and Roman empires found themselves in Egypt for generations. If they had no money nor anyone to return to, they’d try to find a home. Those that didn’t die from loneliness or disease either found a local woman or joined a cult.

Believe me, boarding school may not be ancient Sparta, but in the 1960s it was highly disorienting to be set adrift and far from home at 13. We may not have joined cults, but we formed friendships that have the strength of those among freed slaves. In an odd way, my home is like a recreation of boarding school. Even the gardens and nursery surrounding it are similar: always growing.

Note the wine. As I say, it corresponds to the bull’s blood. You may know that there is an excellent beet grown exclusively for its deliciously bitter red leaves called ‘Bull’s Blood’ that is leafing right now. Cool nights and warm days create a uniquely tangy flavor.

There are many other leaf crops that echo the red of blood. The sweet blood of the sacred bulls was no less important than the cow’s milk. The part of our galaxy called “The Milky Way” refers to the milk left behind by a departing herd of sacred cows. They are gone; their milk remains.

Swiss Chard ‘Red Magic’

Lettuce ‘Baby Leaf Diveria’

Bolting lettuce plants look like a row of people.

Oakleaf ‘Rouxai’

The wines are various Spanish riojas, made and marketed much as the French do Beaujolais. However, these are fruitier. We devoured numerous bottles that evening and the next, since we had so much talking to do. “In vino veritas”.

Smoke is also an age-old ritual device, used to intoxicate the mind, relax the muscles, soften the atmosphere and pleasantly scent foul dwellings. I am a smoker of the ceremonial dried leaf known as cigar tobacco. Nicotine lights up the brain like few other stimulants. I do not inhale; therefore, if it gets me, it will be from bladder cancer.

However, I smoke very seldom, and drink wine the same. Celebrations only, or when I have to write a book or a long report.

Tobacco is very effective for enhancing intellectual creativity. I believe the proliferation of both prescription and illegal drug use is related to the justifiable avoidance of tobacco.

Often I have wondered if the recently rampant drug use among youth and emerging adults is caused by the disuse of natural talents such as music and painting. I paint very little, but I play the guitar each day, like praying. These are made by Bil Mitchell and are among the finest flat-top guitars in the world. Cheap too. Since he cuts, carves and makes them alone by hand, and patiently corrects the tone with each phase of assembly, he creates a literally perfect instrument.

There is a great bull across the street at the agricultural college. He’s huge: about 30-40% larger than a cow with a head even larger still—maybe 50%. I have no camera—don’t have the aptitude for them—so we shall have to wait for Nick to return. Sometime sooner than the next decade, I hope.

Note the large helmet size to hold her long hair. Note her extraordinary profile—she is a leader. It is hard to make out, but there is a wolf’s head holding her breast plates together. His jaw is open, teeth bared. Her mission was to terrify the enemy into submission, then kill almost all who resisted; a few of the bravest enemy would be used to reproduce her tribe. The terrified and submissive were enslaved.

Many myths surround the Amazons. The wolf always suggests Northern Europe as their birthplace. Personally, I believe Central Europe was the original site. The tallest, strongest and toughest women I’ve ever seen are in Hungary.

The Amazons’ meaning is also obscure. I like simple explanations, and the best I have heard is that they were inspired by angry widows. An example is Boedicea or Boduca, as some spell it. An English legendary figure, her husband was killed, daughters raped, village burned. She and her daughters escaped Roman captivity and fled to the woods. She organized and led surrounding villagers in a massive and bloody resistance. She consulted druids for spiritual strength. She probably loved dogs and used them as well against the Romans. She killed thousands of soldiers. “Waded into them”, as Patton said.

This is an early 19th century French bronze. The love and adoration of powerful and brave women is a great feature of French civilization. France and Britain are closer than people think. They both love and hate each other. Their women particularly share many natural affinities—the suspicion of siblings, so to speak. Both the French and English people are extremely gifted at language, for example. And the Irish take it to the level of a fine art. The portrait of a Polish lady is by Ari Scheffer, a French painter who worked all over Europe in the mid 19th century.

Mary’s picture of me with ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (2011 Internet only), the best Aster in our Happiness Garden. Suit by Brooks Brothers.

Back to work!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010 at 3:03 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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21 Responses to “Mithraism: A Good Time”

  1. Ben said:

    A history/art lesson from Uncle Fester (famous for smoke coming out of ears) and Jacque Pepin. As always, an entertaining respite.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Ben. Every once in a while I go off the reservation. Perhaps I shall do it more often, if no one minds, and a few such as you take a bit of pleasure from it.

  2. Constance said:

    You captured my attention (not easy to do)

    • George said:

      Thanks, Constance. Glad to provide some diversion. I especially thought the Rouxai lettuce pics were good, especially the second one—looking like a biological puzzle or the object of an ancient oracle. Please stay tuned for the bull photographs. Thanks again.

  3. Susan James said:

    The education of all people in whatever their chosen field is, is a backdrop to gardening. Historical references to the untrained mind don’t seem to connect but they do. It makes life and gardening interesting.
    In Gardening we all come together from every walk of life. Here we can find a common ground. The interesting thing about this blog is that George can connect his knowledge with the very thing that well all love.
    Each year I try colorful plants and veggies and a lot are new cultivars. Some plants I’ve kept and others I’ve discarded. Some I’ve called Pandora’s Box and others I’ve called Medusa-LOL-what is nice is that we can intermingle the history and arts with our gardening endeavors.
    And then there is the enjoyment of the harvest with friends and family. We can enjoy each other’s company reminiscing of the past and projecting our ideas for the future. JMO

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Susan. You are too kind. A “backdrop” is exactly what I try to create here. Just having some fun as the year’s light goes out. You make a great persuasion for the value of “biopoesis” as a subject for study. You would enjoy Richard Grossinger. Thanks again.

  4. William Churchill said:

    Thanks for inviting us to your gathering and how envious I am to have close friends with whom you can discuss gardening and such. That is missing in my life and so I have joined you vicariously.

    • George said:

      Thank you, William, for your kind words. A couple of times a decade is not as close as I would like, but, as you suggest, it is better than nothing. I am sorry it is missing from your life. Perhaps a local garden club is within reach. I appreciate your following our blog. Good luck. Thanks again.

  5. elspeth grant bobbs said:

    “Neglect ” ? “toxic”? Must have been a Victorian horror.. As one sent to boarding school at 9 years old I cannot be sympathetic. After a homesick first term and after learning I was not the only pebble on the beach it was a wonderful experience. Ever read “Stalky and Co.” by Kipling? Perhaps he was idealizing his own unhappy youth but at at its best a boarding school can be a liberating and invaluable way to grow up.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Elspeth. I tried to express a range between benign and toxic, but I get your point. I believe most parents use boarding schools for ultimate purposes of their own. I say “most”. That can be 60%. We had lots of kids from Aramco, before the Saudis and UAE allowed the Americans to bulk up their domestic and social compound infrastructures. But most were from parents in either classic “romantic dyads” or broken or dysfunctional families. It wasn’t bad—it was just weird. I go into it a bit in “Skunks and Pigs” and “Boar’s Head Revisited”. Did it make me more resourceful? Yes, very much so. Did it do anything to develop a sense of “family” and “home”? Negative. In fact, it eradicated temporarily all traces of the realities of age 1-12. As you suggest, one grows up very quickly, integrating many skills and making up for absent parental controls. Lots of good things: powerful friendships being perhaps the greatest of them.
      Indeed, it is a cult. Only those who experienced early boarding school—and “back in the day” when parents never visited and weekends home were not allowed—have “the look”. Right? Thanks again.

  6. Lizbeth said:

    That blog was beyond clever! Loved it!

    • George said:

      Thank you so much, Lizbeth. Audioslave’s three albums helped significantly.

  7. Janet said:

    I thank you, too, for sharing with all of us who follow your posts. Your works of art are quite extraordinary! More amazing still is the way you have linked so many arts and sciences together into a satisfying whole.
    As a student of ecopsychology, you demonstrate quite beautifully the interconnections of all things, from the macrocosm of all that is to the microcosmic and fundamental elements.
    Your post reminds me that there are no coincidences: Just an hour earlier, I copied a recipe to make a sparkling wine of sorts out of the flower tops of ‘Black Lace’ Elderberry, whose beautiful red foliage drew me to plant it in my garden last year! Let me know if you would like the recipe!
    Thank you again for your lovely post!

    • George said:

      Thank you kindly, Janet. The works of art are “my family”. Please send me your recipe. I love sweet wine from time-to-time.

  8. cathy bowman said:

    What a great letter. All of your observations about ancient and not so ancient history were fasinating. I loved seeing your bronzes and other wonderful things in your room.
    I went to boarding school in the 60’s at 13 also. I still see some of my old friends as well. I don’t think our meetings are as exciting as yours but, we all have a love for ancient history and gardens.
    I really enjoyed your “celebration”. Thank you for sharing it.

    • George said:

      You’re most welcome, Cathy. I am sure our celebrations are quite similar, since boarding school is such a powerful experience, and no student escapes the broad stamp. So, you could fit right in, as our band of three could with yours. I have noticed this effect over the years. Thanks again.

  9. Susan James said:

    No, George you are wrong. Grossinger is NOT my interest at all. He’s into philsophy that I regard with high negativity. It appears that the most intelligent persons follow philosophies where there’s a special reference to man; they use science to explain what cannot be explained, etc…
    I cannot discuss my views here… You and Grossinger might like this book:
    It will help sort out the God-man-earth-science-cosmology ideas.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Susan. I shall read your links. I am a searcher. Did not mean to offend you. I just thought you might find Grossinger’s early work of interest. His wife is a very good poet, also. I found his early essays absolutely electrifying when I was in high school. His memoir of his mother is quite moving. His essays on baseball have miraculous prose. Best to you.

  10. sue noel said:


  11. mary said:

    George, it seems to me your boarding school education set you upon a life-long adventure of learning, classical and otherwise! You make the rest of us appear as mere Neanderthals! Speaking of things mere, Susan James recommends an excellent book in C.S.Lewis’s, Mere Christianity. I enjoy everything he wrote, as I have so far with you! Keep it up and thanks!

  12. lainey said:

    Enjoyed the post! You can tell alot about a man by the friends he keeps. You should try to see eachother more often. Childhood friends who know us so well are valuable. If I understand you correctly…. you believe our youth falls into the easy highs of drugs instead of using their natural talents and developing passions for music and painting etc. I agree. I also think computer games etc. have also replaced the challenges and conquests,of pursuing the arts. My son was competing with a computer once again and playing to WIN. This time the game was “Guitar Hero”. As a parent I edit the time allowed for these games and I don’t allow most of them to ever come into our home. Anyway, I told him to put the game down and learn to play the real guitar. (He already had been playing the piano.) Anyway, He is phenominal! Curious, what do you like to play?I think alot of parents today would rather have their children sit in another room playing games etc. and to not be bothered by them. It takes alot of time and work talking to children, driving them to piano, guitar, ballet,swimming, golf, ice hockey and more.In the end we are all rewarded. Final note… nice to see you are still supporting Brooks Brothers. Sold shirts in Oak Brook, IL.

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