My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 12 Apr, 2005

Mithraism and particle physics

I'm back from New Haven, where I attended a little scholarly conference, the meeting of friends I told you about in the last posting. The meeting had plenty of eating, drinking, and talking, and on Saturday we all went into the Yale library to do a day's worth of research. This is a standard feature of the conference and one of the main reasons I go to it. I got lost in the stacks, which was an experience that could have come right out of the pages of Argentinian surrealist author Jorge Luis Borges. I was rescued by a student volunteer, who led me to the Greek philosophy section, after which everything was fine.

My old habits as a classicist have never left me, and I enjoyed being back among the Greek and Roman philosophies I have always loved. The focus of our conference, as always, is Mithraism, an esoteric Roman religion which flourished in the first to the fifth centuries AD. (or CE, "Christian Era," for the more correct scholarly term). Mithraism was practiced only by men (although there is some evidence that at least a couple of women, wives of Mithraists, managed to attain initiation) and appealed especially to soldiers, government officials, and professionals. It was the "Freemasonry" of its day, a men's lodge where slaves and generals might meet on equal terms and soldiers stationed far away from home could find convivial companionship.

Mithraic worship took place in torchlit underground temples filled with symbolic figures, astrological signs, and illustrations. Unfortunately, no clear interpretation of any of these symbols has come down to modern times, so scholars of Mithraism must puzzle them out as best they can. The central emblem of Mithraism is the bull-slaying scene, which is always at the focus of the temple in front of the assembled worshippers. It depicts the young god Mithras (his name and costume are borrowed from Persian culture) slaying the sacred cosmic Bull with a dagger or short sword. Even this central scene is not understood, though David Ulansey (the author of the website I have cited) seems to have come the closest, in my opinion, to deciphering the symbolism as an astronomical/spiritual allegory.

Those who are hostile to Christianity have often accused Christianity of borrowing (or stealing) from Mithraism. There are some superficial similarities between the two religions, though far fewer than what these critics have been led to believe. Most of the similarities are not because the two religions borrowed from each other, but because they both borrowed from the same cultural sources. The only provable Christian borrowing from Mithraism is the date of Christmas, December 25. This was celebrated as the birthday of Mithras, who was associated with the sun since the date is close to the winter solstice, symbolic "birthday" of the sun. When Christianity took over, it also took over that date; the actual birthday of Jesus is unknown. The official Christianity of the Roman Empire suppressed Mithraism and by the sixth century AD, it had disappeared as an active religion, though in some places, churches were built over old Mithraic temples.

My presentation this year was on possible Pythagorean influence on the sacred geometry of the Bull-slaying emblem. Pythagoras (Greek philosopher of the sixth century BC) was one of the West's first and greatest mathematicians. He was the first to say that all phenomena could be described by numbers. He also founded an esoteric school devoted to mathematics and mysticism. The influence of this school lasted well into Roman times, and so I proposed that this mathematical esotericism might also lend itself to Mithraic sacred geometry. I noted that the figures of Mithras and the Bull, in almost all the copies that have been found, fit perfectly into an equilateral triangle, something which was of great importance in Pythagorean symbolism. I'll be writing up this talk if you are interested.

While at the conference I also finished reading NOBEL DREAMS by Gary Taubes. I realized that accelerator physics, at least as Taubes described it, was Mithraism all over again. The great machines and their detectors are built underground in torchlit spaces, where bands of men (and some women, as long as they are married to men in the group) puzzle over cryptic symbols in the light of the mystic fires. The physicists are intellectual soldiers stationed far away from home, bound by an implacable general's command to man the borderline and combat the enemies of Rome (or more specifically, get results before the other group does). In Taubes' book, all the intense work, all the hardship and mad toil, comes to an inconclusive end, as they cannot confirm that they have indeed discovered anything new. And so the mysteries of supersymmetry, or the Higgs boson, or the slaying of the sacred subatomic Bull, remain unexplained, even unto the present time.

Posted at 1:47 am | link

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