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Hyenas or Lionesses? Mithraism and Women in the Religious World of the Late Antiquity

Aleš Chalupa

In this article, Chalupa examines the scant evidence that has been found for the presence of women in the Roman cult of Mithras.

Only men were initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras. This conclusion was for the first time drawn by Franz Cumont as early as 1899. After having put together the corpus of all literary, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence relevant to this religion, the Belgian scholar immediately became aware of one remarkable fact: all the monuments and dedicatory inscriptions were made only by men. Cumont believed that this situation was caused by the practice of a rigorous ascetic discipline, which prevented women from striving for the initiation into the Mysteries of Mithras and from moving up their initiatory ladder. As a result, women occupied only inferior positions among the Mithraists. Cumont considered this rule to be valid for all Mithraic communities in the west. Nevertheless, he was aware of the existence of several finds which disturbed his scheme. Neoplatonist Porphyry might have mentioned initiatory grade “lioness” in one of his works narrowly corresponding with the funerary inscription from North African Tripolis (ancient Oea), which also uses the title “lioness” when speaking about a woman. However, Cumont considered these cases to be isolated and anomalous, possibly reflecting the extraordinary ways in some local communities influenced by the Orient.


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