Wednesday, December 21, 2005

History into fiction: the metamorphoses of the Mithras myths

By ROGER BECK, Toronto

This article is neither about a particular ancient novel nor about the genre of
the ancient novel in general. But it is about story-telling in the ancient world,
and about the metamorphosis which stories undergo when they pass through
the crucible of religious invention. Its subject, then, is narrative fiction ?
narrative fiction as the construction of sacred myth and of myth?s dramatic
counterpart, ritual performance.

The fictions I shall explore are the myths and rituals of the Mithras cult.
Some of these fictions, I shall argue, are elaborations of events and fantasies
of the Neronian age: on the one hand, events in both Italy and the orient centred
on the visit of Tiridates of Armenia to Rome in 66; on the other hand,
the heliomania of the times, a solar enthusiasm focused on, and in some
measure orchestrated by, the emperor himself.

What I am not offering is an explanation of Mithraism and its origins. In
the first place, our subject is story and the metamorphosis of story, not religion.
In the second place, I would not presume to ?explain? Mithraism, or any
other religion for that matter, by Euhemeristic reduction to a set of historical
or pseudo-historical antecedents. In speaking of the ?invention? of Mithraism
and of its ?fictions?, moreover, I intend no disrespect. I would use the same
terms for Christianity (in which I happen to believe). By ?invention? I mean,
in the literal sense, the discovery by its founders of the religion?s fundamental
truths; and by ?fictions? I mean the stories and the ritual performances in
which those truths were expressed. I do not imply that the Mithraists willfully
or naively misconstrued recent history. Stories from the recent past, I shall
suggest, furnished Mithraism not with the substance of its mysteries, but
with some of the themes, incident and coloration of its myths and rites.

Fiction migrates through religion along a two-way road. The flow of
narrative traffic in the other direction, from the fictions of religion to the
fictions of secular literature, has been plotted, most recently and most brilliantly,
by Glen Bowersock. In Fiction as History (1994), Bowersock describes
a burst of inventiveness, starting in Nero?s reign, which engendered
new forms of literature, principally the prose romance. These works are full
of marvels, one of which is the Scheintod, the tale of the ?apparent death? of
one of the characters, usually the heroine. ?The question we must now ask?,
says Bowersock (1994: 119), ?is whether from a historical point of view we
would be justified in explaining the extraordinary growth in fictional writing,
and its characteristic and concomitant fascination with resurrection, as some
kind of reflection of the remarkable stories that were coming out of Palestine
precisely in the middle of the first century A.D.? Another daring suggestion
is that we read not only Achilles Tatius? story of the origin of wine (2,2?3)
but also the last extant episode of Petronius? Satyrica (141), the story of Eumolpus?
cannibalistic will, as plays upon the Christian rite of the eucharist
and the myth of its institution (Bowersock 1994: 125?138). With the Satyrica
we are back in the Neronian age itself.
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