In Studies in Mithraism, John R.Hinnells,
ed. Rome: "L'Erma" di
One of the most perplexing aspects of the
Mithraic mysteries consists in
the fact that Mithraic iconography always portrays Mithras and the sun
god as separate beings, while - in stark contradiction to this
absolutely consistent iconographical distinction between Mithras and
sun - in Mithraic inscriptions Mithras is often identified with the sun
by being called "sol invictus," the "unconquered sun."
It thus appears
that the Mithraists somehow believed in the existence of two suns: one
represented by the figure of the sun god, and the other by Mithras
himself as the "unconquered sun."
It is thus of great interest to note
that the Mithraists were not alone in believing in the existence of two
suns, for we find in Platonic circles the concept of the existence of
two suns, one being the normal astronomical sun and the other a
so-called "hypercosmic" sun located beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
In my book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries I have argued that the
god Mithras originated as the personification of the force responsible
for the newly discovered cosmic phenomenon of the
precession of the
Since from the geocentric perspective the precession appears
to be a movement of the entire cosmic sphere, the force responsible for
it most likely would have been understood as being "hypercosmic," beyond
or outside of the cosmos.
It will be my argument here that Mithras, as a
result of his being imagined as a hypercosmic entity, became identified
with the Platonic "hypercosmic sun," thus opening up the way for the
puzzling existence of two "suns" in Mithraic ideology.
The most important source for our knowledge of the Platonic tradition of
the existence of two suns is the Chaldaean Oracles, the collection of
enigmatic sayings generated late in the second century C.E. by a father
and son both named Julian.
These oracular sayings were, as is well known,
seized upon by Porphyry and later Neoplatonists as constituting a divine
revelation. For our purposes, the most important element in the
Chaldaean teachings is that of the existence of
As Hans Lewy
The Chaldaeans distinguished between two fiery bodies: one possessed of
a noetic nature and the visible sun.
The former was said to conduct the
latter. According to Proclus, the Chaldaeans call the "solar world"
situated in the supramundane region "entire light." In another passage,
this philosopher states that the supramundane sun was known to them as
"time of time...." 1
As Lewy showed definitively in his study,
the Chaldaean Oracles were the
product of a Middle Platonic milieu, since they are permeated by
concepts and images known from Platonizing thinkers ranging from Philo
It is thus likely that the Chaldaean concept of a
hypercosmic sun is at least partly derived from the famous solar
allegories of Plato's Republic, in which the sun is used as a symbol for
the highest of Plato's Ideal Forms, that of the Good. In Book VI of the
Plato compares the sun to the Good, saying that as
the sun is the source of all illumination and understanding in the
visible world (the horatos topos), the Good is the supreme source of
being and understanding in the world of the forms (the noetos topos or "intelligible
Plato then amplifies this image in his famous allegory of the
cave at the beginning of Book VII of the Republic. In this famous
passage, Plato symbolizes normal human life as life in a cave, and then
describes the ascent of one of the cave-dwellers up out of the cave
where he sees for the first time the dazzling light of the sun outside
Thus in Book VI of the Republic we see the image of the sun used as a
metaphor for the Form of the Good - the source of all being which exists
in the "intelligible world" beyond the ordinary "visible world" of human
experience - and then in Book VII, in the allegory of the cave, this same
image of the sun is used even more concretely to symbolize that which
exists outside of the normal human world represented by the cave.
In addition, as has often been noted, there seems to have been a
connection in Plato's imagination between his allegory in Book VII of
The Republic of the ascent of the cave dweller to the sunlit world
outside the cave and his myth in the Phaedrus of the ascent of the soul
to the realm outside of the cosmos where "True Being" dwells.
account in the Phaedrus reads:
For the souls that are called immortal, so soon as they are at the
summit [of the heavens], come forth and stand upon the back of the world:
and straightway the revolving heaven carries them round, and they look
upon the regions without.
Of that place beyond the heavens none of our
earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily. But this is
the manner of it, for assuredly we must be bold to speak what is true,
above all when our discourse is upon truth.
It is there that true being
dwells, without colour or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone,
the soul's pilot, can behold it, and all true knowledge is knowledge
As R. Hackforth says,
No earlier myth has told of a
hyperouranios topos [place beyond the
heavens], but this is not the first occasion on which true Being, the
ousia ontos ousa, has been given a local habitation. In the passage of
Rep. VI which introduces the famous comparison of the Form of the Good
to the sun we have a noetos topos contrasted with a horatos (508C): but
a spatial metaphor is hardly felt there...
A truer approximation to the
hyperouranios topos occurs in the simile of the cave in Rep. VII, where
we are plainly told that the prisoners' ascent into the light of day
symbolizes ten eis ton noeton tes psyches anodon (517B); in fact, the
noetos topos of the first simile has in the second developed into a real
spatial symbol. 3
Paul Friedländer agrees with
Hackforth completely in seeing a connection
in Plato's mind between the ascent from the cave in the Republic and the
ascent to the "hypercosmic place" in the Phaedrus:
The movement "upward"... had found its fullest expression in the
allegory of the cave in the Republic. [Now in the Phaedrus]... the
dimension of the "above" is stated according to the new cosmic
For the "intelligible place" (topos noetos) in the
Republic (509D, 517B) now becomes "the place beyond the heavens" (topos
What is, of course, important to see here is that there exists already
in Plato the obvious raw material for the emergence of the idea of the "hypercosmic
when the prisoners escape the cave in the Republic what they find
outside it is the sun, but if Hackforth and Friedländer are correct the
vision of what is outside the cave in the Republic is linked in Plato's
mind with the vision of what is outside the cosmos in the myth recounted
in the Phaedrus.
It would therefore be a natural and obvious step for a
Platonist to imagine that what is outside the cosmic cave of the
Republic - namely, the sun, the visible symbol of the highest of the
Forms and of the source of all being - is also what is to be found
outside the cosmos in the "hypercosmic place" described in the
An intermediate stage in the development of the concept of the "hypercosmic
sun" between Plato and the Chaldaean Oracles can be glimpsed in
writings, for example in the following passage from De Opificio Mundi:
The intelligible as far surpasses the visible in the brilliancy of its
radiance, as sunlight assuredly surpasses darkness...
invisible light perceptible only by mind... is a supercelestial
constellation [hyperouranios aster], fount of the constellations obvious
It would not be amiss to term it "all-brightness," to signify
that from which sun and moon as well as fixed stars and planets draw, in
proportion to their several capacity, the light befitting each of them...
Here we see Philo referring to the existence in the intelligible sphere
of a "hypercosmic star" (hyperouranios aster) which he links with the
image of sunlight, and which he sees as the ultimate source of the light
in the visible heavens.6
Philo's formulation here is, of course,
strikingly similar to the Chaldaean concept of the hypercosmic sun, the
description of which by Lewy we should recall here:
distinguished between two fiery bodies: one possessed of a noetic nature
and the visible sun. The former was said to conduct the latter.
According to Proclus, the Chaldaeans call the 'solar world' situated in
the supramundane region 'entire light.'" 7
The trajectory we have been tracing from Plato through Middle Platonism
to the Chaldaean Oracles continues beyond the time of the Chaldaean
Oracles into early Neoplatonism, for we find the concept of the
existence of two suns clearly spelled out in the writings of Plotinus,
in a context that makes it clear that for Plotinus one of these suns was
In chapter 2, paragraph 11 of his
fourth Ennead, Plotinus
speaks of two suns, one being the normal visible sun and the other being
an "intelligible sun."
According to Plotinus,
...that sun in the divine realm is Intellect
- let this serve as an
example for our discourse - and next after it is soul, dependent upon it
and abiding while Intellect abides. This soul gives the edge of itself
which borders on this [visible] sun to this sun, and makes a connection
of it to the divine realm through the medium of itself, and acts as an
interpreter of what comes from this sun to the intelligible sun and from
the intelligible sun to this sun... 8
What is especially interesting for us is that in the same third chapter
of the fourth Ennead, a mere six paragraphs after the passage just
quoted, Plotinus explicitly locates the intelligible realm - which he
has just told us is the location of a second sun - in the space beyond
The passage reads:
One could deduce from considerations like the following that the souls
when they leave the intelligible first enter the space of heaven. For if
heaven is the better part of the region perceived by the senses, it
borders on the last and lowest parts of the intelligible.
As A.H. Armstong says of this passage,
"There is here a certain
'creeping spatiality'... [Plotinus'] language is influenced, perhaps not
only by the 'cosmic religiosity' of his time, but by his favorite myth
in Plato's Phaedrus (246D6-247E6)." 10
In any event, we here find
Plotinus in the third chapter of the fourth Ennead first positing the
existence of an "intelligible sun" besides the normal visible sun, and
then locating the intelligible realm spatially in the region beyond the
outermost boundary of the heavens.
Finally, to return to the Chaldaean Oracles, the fact that the Chaldaean
concept of the "hypercosmic sun" was at least sometimes taken in a
completely literal and spatial sense is shown by a passage from the
Platonizing Emperor Julian's Hymn to Helios.
certain unnamed mysteries it is taught that "the sun travels in the
starless heavens far above the region of the fixed stars."
fact that Julian's thinking was steeped in the Neoplatonic philosophy of Iamblichus who was deeply committed to the Chaldaean
Oracles as a source
of divinely inspired knowledge, and given the fact that the doctrine of
the "hypercosmic sun" is an established teaching of the Chaldaean
Oracles, it is virtually certain, as Robert Turcan points out in his
remarks about this passage, that Julian is referring here to the
teaching of the Chaldaean Oracles.
The passage from
therefore, shows that the "hypercosmic sun" of the Chaldaean Oracles was
understood as being "hypercosmic" not in a merely symbolic or
but rather in the literal sense of being located
physically and spatially in the region beyond the outermost boundary of
the cosmos defined by the sphere of the fixed stars.
Our discussion thus far has shown that in the late second century C.E.
there is found in the Chaldaean Oracles the doctrine of the
two suns: one the normal, visible sun, and the other a "hypercosmic" sun.
The evidence from Julian shows that the "hypercosmic" nature of this
second sun was understood as meaning that it was literally located
beyond the outermost sphere of the fixed stars.
The fact that the
Chaldaean Oracles emerged out of the milieu of Middle Platonism suggests
that the doctrine of the "hypercosmic sun" found in the Oracles did not
develop overnight, but that it has roots in the Platonic tradition, most
likely, as we have seen, going back ultimately to Plato himself:
specifically, to the allegory in the Republic of the ascent beyond the
world-cave to the sunlit realm outside and the related myth of the Phaedrus describing the ascent of the soul towards its ultimate vision
of the hyperouranios topos, the "hypercosmic place" beyond the heavens.
An intermediate stage between Plato and the Chaldaean Oracles is found
in Philo's reference to the "hypercosmic star" which is the source of
the light of the visible heavenly bodies, and slightly later than the Chaldaean Oracles we find Plotinus making reference to two suns, one of
them being in the intelligible realm which he places spatially beyond
We may say, therefore, that it is likely that there existed in Middle
Platonic circles during the second century C.E. (and probably much
earlier as well) speculations about the existence of a second sun
besides the normal, visible sun:
a "hypercosmic" sun located in that
"place beyond the heavens" (hyperouranios topos) described in
stone carving showing the so-called "lion-headed god," whose
image is often found in Mithraic temples, standing on a globe
that is marked with the cross representing the two circles of
the zodiac and the celestial equator
We see here, of course, a striking parallel with the
in which we also find two suns, one being Helios the sun-god (who is
always distinguished from Mithras in the iconography) and the other
being Mithras in his role as the "unconquered sun."
On the basis of my
explanation of Mithras as the personification of the force responsible
for the precession of the equinoxes this striking parallel becomes
For as we have seen, the "hypercosmic sun" of the
Platonists is located beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, in Plato's
But if my theory about Mithras is correct (namely,
that he was the personification of the force responsible for the
precession of the equinoxes) it follows that Mithras - as an entity
capable of moving the entire cosmic sphere and therefore of necessity
being outside that sphere - must have been understood as a being whose
proper location was in precisely that same "hypercosmic realm" where the
Platonists imagined their "hypercosmic sun" to exist.
A Platonizing Mithraist (of whom there must have been many
Cronius, and Celsus), therefore, would almost automatically have been
led to identify Mithras with the Platonic "hypercosmic sun," in which
case Mithras would become a second sun besides the normal, visible sun.
Therefore, the puzzling presence in Mithraic ideology of two suns (one
being Helios the sun-god and the other Mithras as the "unconquered sun")
becomes immediately understandable on the basis of my theory about the
nature of Mithras.
Finally, the line of investigation which I have pursued here can also
allow me to provide a simple and convincing interpretation for two
further puzzling elements of Mithraic iconography.
First, all the
various astronomical explanations of the tauroctony which scholars are
currently advancing (including my own) agree that the bull in the tauroctony is meant to represent the
constellation Taurus as seen in the night sky faces to the left while
the bull in the tauroctony always faces to the right.
How can this
apparent discrepancy be explained? On the basis of my theory
this question has an obvious answer.
For although it is the case that the
constellation Taurus as seen from the earth (i.e., from inside the
cosmos) faces to the left, it is also the case that on ancient (and
modern) star-globes which depict the cosmic sphere as it would be seen
from the outside the orientation of the constellations is naturally
reversed, with the result that on such globes (like the famous ancient
"Atlas Farnese" globe - image right)
Taurus is always depicted facing to the right
exactly like the bull in the tauroctony.
This shows that the Mithraic
bull is meant to represent the constellation Taurus as seen from outside
the cosmos, i.e. from the "hypercosmic" perspective, which is, of
course, precisely the perspective we should expect to find associated
with Mithras if my argument in this paper is correct.13
Second, the line of investigation I have pursued here can also provide a
simple and convincing interpretation of the iconographical motif known
as the "rock-birth" of Mithras, in which
Mithras is shown emerging out
of a rock.
As is well known, Porphyry, quoting
Eubulus, explains in the
Cave of the Nymphs that the Mithraic cave in which Mithras kills the
bull and which
the Mithraic temple imitates was meant to be an image of
the cosmos (De Antro. 6).
Of course, the hollow Mithraic cave would have
to be an image of the cosmos as seen from the inside.
But caves are
precisely hollows within the rocky earth, which suggests the possibility
that the rock out of which Mithras is born is meant to represent the
cosmos as seen from the outside.
Confirmation of this interpretation is
provided by the fact that the rock out of which Mithras is born is often
shown entwined by a snake, a detail which unmistakably evokes the famous
Orphic motif of the snake-entwined cosmic egg out of which the cosmos
was formed when the god Phanes emerged from it at the beginning of
It thus seems reasonable to conclude that
the rock in the Mithraic scenes of the "rock-birth" of
Mithras is a symbol for the
cosmos as seen from the outside, just as the cave (the hollow within the
rock) is a symbol for the cosmos as seen from the inside.
I would argue, therefore, that the
Mithras (left) is a symbolic
representation of his "hypercosmic" nature. Capable of moving the entire
universe, Mithras is essentially greater than the cosmos, and cannot be
contained within the cosmic sphere.
He is therefore pictured as bursting
out of the rock that symbolizes the cosmos (not unlike the prisoner
emerging from the cosmic cave described by Plato in Rep. VII), breaking
through the boundary of the universe represented by the rock's surface
and establishing his presence in the "hypercosmic place" indicated by
the space into which he emerges outside of the rock.
And, to conclude, in this context it is no accident that in the
"rock-birth" scenes Mithras is almost always shown
holding a torch; for
having established that his proper place is outside of the cosmos,
Mithras has become identified with the "hypercosmic sun": that
light-giving being which dwells, as Proclus says,
in the supermundane (worlds) [en tois hyperkosmiois]; for there exists
the "solar world (and the) whole light..." as the Chaldaean
and which I believe.15
 Hans Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Paris: Études
Augustiniennes, 1978) pp. 151-2.
 247B-C; trans. R. Hackforth, Plato's Phaedrus (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1952) pp. 71,78.
 Ibid., pp. 80-1.
 Paul Friedländer, Plato I: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1958) p. 194.
 VIII.31; trans. F.H. Colson, Philo (London: William Heinemann, 1929)
vol. 1, p. 25.
Philo often speaks of God using expressions such as the
"intelligible sun" (noetos helios [Quaest. in Gen. IV.1; see Ralph
Marcus, trans., Philo Supplement 1: Questions and Answers on Genesis
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953) p. 269, n.l]) or similar
expressions involving light and illumination located in the intelligible
realm; for references see Pierre Boyancé, Études sur le songe de Scipion
(Paris: E. de Boccard, 1936) pp. 73-4; Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles, p. 151,
n. 312; David Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986) p. 435 and n. 143. Boyancé (p. 73-4) quite
reasonably argues that such expressions were identical in Philo's mind
with the hyperouranios aster ("hypercosmic star") of De Opificio Mundi
 For a superb discussion of the broader context in which the
development of the concept of the "hypercosmic sun" most likely occured,
see Boyancé, Études, pp. 65-77. Recently A.P. Bos has argued that the
story of the ascent to the sunlit world outside of the cave in Plato's
Republic was explicitly connected by Aristotle with Plato's image in the
Phaedrus of the ascent of the soul to the "place beyond the heavens,"
and that this connection played a central role in one of Aristotle's
lost dialogues whose major elements were then preserved and utilized by
Plutarch in his De Facie. See A.P. Bos, Cosmic and Meta-Cosmic Theology
in Aristotle's Lost Dialogues (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989): the argument
is complex and the book should be read as a whole, but see esp. pp.
67-8, 182. The development of the concept of the "hypercosmic sun" also
must, of course, be seen in the context of the evolution of the "solar
theology" described by Franz Cumont in his La théologie solaire du
paganisme romain (Paris: Librairie Kliensieck, 1909). A very important
and intriguing argument is made for the presence of a tradition of a
"hypercosmic sun" in Orphic circles by Hans Leisegang, "The Mystery of
the Serpent," in Joseph Campbell, ed., The Mysteries (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1955) pp. 194-261. The Greek magical papyri
and the Hermetic corpus provide numerous examples of solar imagery in
which the sun is in various ways symbolically elevated to at least the
summit of the cosmos if not explicitly to a "hypercosmic" level.
Finally, Hermetic, Gnostic, and Neoplatonic texts all betray an almost
obsessive concern with enumerating and distinguishing the various cosmic
spheres and levels, and especially with establishing where the boundary
lies between the cosmic and the hypercosmic realms (the hypercosmic
realm being identified by the Hermetists and Neoplatonists with the
"intelligible world" and by the Gnostics with the "Pleroma"). This
concern with establishing the boundary between the cosmic and the
hypercosmic must have fed into speculations about the "hypercosmic sun,"
and - intriguingly - one of the clearest symbolic formulations of this
boundary between the cosmic and the hypercosmic is found in the
religious system of the Chaldaean Oracles (exactly, that is, in the
system in which we find explicitly formulated the image of the
"hypercosmic sun"), where the figure of Hecate is understood as the
symbolic embodiment of precisely this boundary (on the image of Hecate
in the Chaldaean Oracles see now Sarah Iles Johnston, Hekate Soteira
[Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990]).
 IV, 3.11.14-22; trans. A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus (Cambridge, Mass.,
1984) vol. 4, pp. 71-73.
 IV.3.17.1-6; ibid, pp. 87-89.
 Ibid., p. 88, n. 1.
 Or. 4.148A; trans. W. C. Wright, Julian (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1962) p. 405.
 Robert Turcan, Mithras Platonicus (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975) p.
124. Julian was well acquainted with the Chaldaean Oracles: see Polymnia
Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1981) pp. 143-53. Roger Beck has recently suggested that Julian
is referring here to the Iranian cosmology in which the sun and moon are
located beyond the stars (Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the
Mysteries of Mithras [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988], pp. 2-3, n.2). However,
Julian's intimate association with Iamblichus and the Chaldaean Oracles,
in which the doctrine of the "hypercosmic sun" is well established,
renders the possibility that Julian is referring to the Iranian
tradition highly unlikely. As Hans Lewy says, "There seems to be no
connection between [Julian's teaching] and Zoroaster's doctrine
according to which the sun is situated above the fixed stars" (Chaldaean
Oracles, p. 153, n. 317). However, it is certainly true that the
existence of the Iranian cosmology placing the sun beyond the stars
could easily have provided some additional motivation for the emergence
of the identification between the "Persian" Mithras and the Platonic
"hypercosmic sun" for which I have argued here. On the Iranian cosmology
see M.L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1971), pp. 89-91; Walter Burkert, "Iranisches bei
Anaximandros," Rheinisches Museum 106 (1963) pp. 97-134.
 It should be noted that the fact that the bull in the tauroctony
faces to the right renders untenable Roger Beck's suggestion that the
tauroctony is a picture of the night sky as seen by an observer on earth
at the time of the setting of the constellation Taurus ("Cautes and
Cautopates: Some Astronomical Considerations," Journal of Mithraic
Studies 2.1  p. 10; Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the
Mysteries of Mithras [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988] p. 20), since such an
observer would see Taurus facing to the left. The fact that the bull in
the tauroctony faces right is explicable only if we understand the
tauroctony as the creation of someone who had in mind an astronomical
star-globe showing the cosmic sphere as seen from the outside, and not -
as Beck argues - an image of the sky as seen from the earth.
 That the rock from which Mithras is born was identified with the
Orphic cosmic egg is in fact proven beyond doubt, as is well known, by
the striking similarity between the Mithraic Housesteads monument (CIMRM
860), which shows Mithras being born out of an egg (which is thus
identified with the rock from which he is usually born), and the famous
Orphic Modena relief showing Phanes breaking out of the cosmic egg
(CIMRM 695). In connection with this Orphic-Mithraic syncretism, Hans
Leisegang, "Mystery of the Serpent" (above, n. 8), esp. pp. 201-215, has
collected a fascinating body of material - including among other things
the Modena relief and the passage from Julian which I have discussed
above - supporting the contention that the breaking of the Orphic cosmic
egg is linked directly with the concept of the "hypercosmic."
Leisegang's discussion as a whole provides strong support for my general
argument in this paper.
 Chaldaean Oracles Frag. 59 (= Proclus, In Tim. III.83.13-16);
trans. Ruth Majercik, The Chaldaean Oracles (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989)
p. 73. The sun was often imagined in antiquity as a torchbearer, as for
example in SVF 1:538: "Cleanthes... used to say... that the sun is a
torchbearer" (cited in Jean Pépin, "Cosmic Piety," in Classical
Mediterranean Spirituality [New York: Crossroad, 1986] p. 425); a
fragment from Porphyry: "In the mysteries of Eleusis, the hierophant is
dressed as demiurge, the torchbearer as the sun..." (also cited in
Pepin, "Piety," p. 429); and of course Lucius in Apuleius' Golden Ass
XI.24: "In my right hand I carried a lighted torch... thus I was adorned
like unto the sun...." (trans. W. Adlington, Apuleius The Golden Ass
[London: William Heinemann, 1928] p. 583).