Christ and Mithras

According to Jung, the animal face that he felt his own transformed into is the famous Deus Leontocephalus of the Mithraic mysteries. This lion-headed god encoiled by the snake is also called Aion, or the eternal being achieved through a reconciliation of opposites. In his own analysis of the image, Jung (1989) amplifies its meaning through the Mithraic amphora: a lion is on one side and the snake is on the other; both are trying to get at the fire. The lion, he says, is the young, hot, dry July sun and the culmination of summer. The serpent is humidity, darkness, the earth and winter. Again, the opposites of the world are attempting to come together, this time through the flame, a mediating, reconciling symbol, the “eternal fire” of Christ and the Holy Spirit. He says of this symbol:

It is of course a man’s symbol, a symbol of the womb - the creative womb of

the man out of which rises the fire. When the pairs of opposites come together, something divine happens, and then it is immortality, the eternal, creative time. Wherever there is generation there is time, therefore Chronos is God of Time, Fire, and Light.

(1989: 99)

Jung sounds the leitmotif of the male initiation mystery of the hero’s survival of the awesome miracle of a second birth after traversing the threshold of self annihilation. This threshold is the emptiness that is “a great feminine secret.” It is something absolutely alien to man; the chasm, the unplumbed depth, the yin” (1954: 98). The hero goes inward and descends, dying to time in the world womb to be born again. The purpose of such a journey, specific to my focus on shame, is to separate the male from the mother in both her earth and sexual dimensions; the passage requires a confrontation with shame and the development of humility on both Oedipal and infantile levels.

Jung’s vision depicts the transformation of his depths into light. To realize that he too is Christ is to come forth separated from the mother as a child of God who recognizes his need for woman to incarnate his only Son. Realizing a vision of Christ is the consummation of Dante’s Canto 32, 85-88:

look now upon the face that is most like

The face of Christ, for only through its brightness

Can you prepare your vision to see Him.

A confrontation with shame is a necessity if one is to fully separate from the mother in both her earth and sexual aspects, meaning the sacrifice of the whole man and a transformation of his sources for power:

Truly I tell you,

No one can see the Kingdom of God Without being born anew.

(John 3:1-3)

Another avenue for amplification of the lion is also possible. The lion of Mithras is one of Lilith’s cult animals, and, also like Mithras, she has the face of a lion (and has been depicted with the body of a snake and the head of a beautiful woman) (Hurwitz, 1999: 43). Lamashtu, the historically older root of Lilith, is described in the Labartu text:

Her abode is on the mountains, or in the reedbeds. Dreadful is her appearance. Her head and her face are those of a fearsome lion, white as clay is her countenance . . . she roars like a lion . . . A whore is she.

(quoted in Hurwitz, 1999: 36)

Another passage links Lilith to the lion and the entwining serpent:

Dreadful is she, headstrong is she, she is a goddess, terrible is she. She is like a leopard, the daughter of Anu. Her feet are those of (the bird) Zu, her hands are dirty, her face is that of a powerful lion . . . she slides in like a snake.

(quoted in Hurwitz, 1999: 43)

Jung goes on in his 1925 seminar to explain the connections between Mithras and Christ. Mithras is the brother of Christ, so they have a lot in common. To the early Christians, Christ was identified with the sun, and Christmas meant the resurrection of the sun. The name Mithras is related to Modern Persian mihr, meaning “love” and “sun.” The self-sacrificial hero Mithras is a god of enormous power who, like the sun, has a shining countenance. As the god of light, he guards against evil. The Persian sun god Mithras is even equipped with an immense number of eyes for just such a purpose.

Both Mithras and Christ sacrifice their animal nature, their instinctual side. Both are gods of life and death. Mithras is represented on monuments as carrying the bull, meaning the animal side of himself that he has to sacrifice. The bull sacrifice is a divine sacrifice. But the animal is, as it were, only a part of the hero; he sacrifices his animal attribute, his instinctuality. It is both voluntary and involuntary. By sacrificing the valued objects of desire and possession, the instinctive desire, or libido, is given up in order that it may be regained in a new form. His inner participation in the sacrificial act is perfectly expressed in the anguished and ecstatic countenance of the bull-slaying Mithras. He slays it willingly and unwillingly at once, hence the rather pathetic expression on certain monuments, not unlike the somewhat mawkish face of Christ in Guido Reni’s Crucifixion (Jung, 1925).

Christ carries the symbol of the cross, and is then hung on it. His entire being is the sacrifice. This act of supreme courage and renunciation is a crushing defeat for not only man’s animal nature and ego, but for his entire life. It is completely involuntary. Yet such a deed alone seems equal to the task of expiating Adam’s, hence all of mankind’s, sin of unbridled instinctuality. Christ is the “Lamb of God,” but unlike the lambs sacrificed in the Jerusalem temple for certain kinds of sin, Jesus is a man, meaning that the sacrifice is of his manhood; “the place where opposites cross is a place of crucifixion for the male” (Thompson, 1981: 114). Jesus the human being is treated more like an animal, unlike the bull that substitutes for Mithras. Towards the end of “The Sacrifice” in Symbols, Jung began to reverse his identification with Mithras and attempts to educate us on the sublimation of the libido:

The comparison of Mithraic and Christian sacrifice plainly shows wherein lies the superiority of the Christian symbol; it is the frank admission that not only are the lower wishes to be sacrificed, but the whole personality. The Christian symbol demands complete devotion; it compels a veritable selfsacrifice to a higher purpose . . .

(1955: 478)

Mithraic symbolism depicts a sacrifice that suggests that when instinct is killed, one will become conscious. When Mithras conquers his animal nature, he arrogates to himself the strength of the sun and becomes its lord (Jung, 1989). Being both animal and man, he paradoxically represents instinct as well as the prohibition of instincts. Man becomes the sun through conquering his animal instinctuality.

The death of Christ signifies a different meaning of sacrifice. Man is cleansed of his shame, his original sin, making sacrifice the very reverse of regression. Sacrifice produces a successful canalization of the libido into a symbolic equivalent of the mother - hence, a spiritualization of her. The hero’s journey undertaken to separate from the mother must include not just the sacrifice of Mithras, which only leads to the sun, the masculine, but the sacrifice of Christ, a descent into darkness and nothingness - the absence - of maternal femininity; this leads to light-giving empowerment of shame and the development of conscience.

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