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THE EXCLUSION OF WOMEN IN THE MITHRAIC MYSTERIES: ANCIENT OR MODERN?

In: Numen
Author: Jonathan David1
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  • 1 Pennsylvania State University, 108 Weaver Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA
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Abstract

The following paper deals with the scholarly supposition that females were excluded from the ancient mystery cult of Mithraism. This notion has been part of scholarly dialogue about the religion since Franz Cumont, the father of modern Mithraic studies, introduced it in the late nineteenth century. Though many of his conclusions about Mithraism have been challenged or refuted in the past thirty years, the particular idea that the cult excluded women has persisted, and actually has become taken for granted by most scholars. Thanks to the publication of much important archaeological and epigraphical evidence during the past fifty years, a reexamination of this notion is now possible. By surveying a few examples of Mithraic inscriptions and iconography in light of heretofore discounted textual clues from such ancient authors as Porphyry, Jerome, and Tertullian, it will be argued that the theory of universal female exclusion from Mithraism is untenable. In order to demonstrate this, it will be necessary to challenge and scrutinize the work of the only modern scholar to explore gender within ancient Mithraism, Richard Gordon. Instead of starting from a preconceived notion of exclusion and attempting to explain away the various exceptions to this rule, this article will tally these "exceptions" to conclude simply that women were involved with Mithraic groups in at least some locations of the empire. Some possible implications of this conclusion then will be suggested.

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