By Lukas Mandelbaum
There is no more enchanted landscape in Europe than the bay of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. A vast boundless expanse where sand, sea, and wind meet and mix without constraints, crowned by a rocky islet from which the fiery spires of the Benedictine abbey seem to ascend to the sky. The bay is a four-element microcosm that since a millennium inspires visitors and pilgrims, and even today, even amidst the busy touristic lanes, one cannot fail to feel the aura of monastic ascetism, not disjoint from the impressive signs of the Benedictine temporal power.
Saint Michael is one of the most popular saints in Europe. Many churches, often built on hilltops like on Mont Saint-Michel, are devoted to him. However, he is not a saint at all, but rather an archangel, the chief of the host of angels, according to the Bible. It took centuries before the devotion to Michael, after an initial suspicion against a cult that had pagan overtones, could be finally accepted by the early Christian Church: only around the mid-fifth century the first shrines devoted to the powerful archangel were erected in Western Europe. But once started, the cult of Michael spread fast across the old continent, from Southern Italy to Ireland, from Spain to Scandinavia. A warrior angel, stabbing with his sword Satan the Dragon, and weighing the souls’ sins, Michael became the symbolic leader of the new European powers after the fall of the Western Roman Empire – the Lombards, the Franks, and the other German tribes.
Some of the oldest shrines of Michael are in Ireland (on the Skellig Michael, a ghostly rocky islet off the southern coast), in Cornwall (St. Michael’s Mount), in Normandy (Mont Saint-Michel), in Central Italy (Perugia), and in Southern Italy (San Michele del Gargano), all dating from the fifth to the eighth century. When localized on a map, these shrines form a very precise alignment extending over more than 2000 km. Other Michaelitic temples (some of them no longer extant), in Le Mans, Lyon, San Galgano near Siena, San Michele della Chiusa, Spoleto, Larino, also lie on this axis. Continuing along the axis towards southeast, one finds the ancient Greek sanctuary of Delphi, and then Delos, the two most celebrated shrines of Apollo in Antiquity. Finally, the axis can be extended towards Mount Carmel, in Israel, the mount of the prophet Elijah. All these places appear aligned to within at most 30 km along the axis.
Mount Carmel, Israel
It is remarkable that the alignment occurs on the so-called rhumb line, which is the line that keeps the same bearing with respect to due north. This is the route the ancient seafarers followed on open sea, before the advent of modern systems of navigation. An alignment along a great circle, the shortest distance route followed by aircrafts, would have been impossible to realize for the ancients.
This axis of Michael and Apollo has been first recognized more than 50 years ago by Jean Richer and his brother Julien, but no serious explanation has been so far offered. It’s hard to imagine it is a chance alignment, since a simple calculation shows it to be very unlikely, with a probability of less than one in 500. Was it possible for ancient travelers to establish this precise alignment over such a long stretch? What is the relation between Michael, Apollo, and Elijah? Why has the axis been created, and by whom?
The first step towards an explanation is to recognize that in many places in Europe Michael the Archangel was invoked as the most powerful fighter against demoniac presences. When in the fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, paganism did not die overnight. Rather, it resisted successfully for a long time, especially in the countryside far from urban contexts, and even well into the fifth and sixth centuries the local bishops had to continuously warn against the residual pagan “superstition”. But what turned out to be the most die-hard cults were not the official state religion with its hieratic processions, public sacrifices, and rich temples in prominent places. They were all too easy targets for Christianization. What offered the most dangerous resistance were the so-called mystery cults, imported in the Roman Empire from Egypt, the Middle East, and as far as Persia, in particular the most famous ones, the cults of Isis, Cybele, and Mithras.
Mystery cults were bitterly attacked by Christian polemicists because with their intimate connection with the god and their initiatory, secret rites, were difficult to refute on theological grounds. Moreover, and most worryingly, these cults had several aspects in common with Christianity itself. Mithraists, for example, met in small groups in dark or underground places, had a communal meal probably employing wine and bread, and imparted teachings of salvation after death. No wonder that Mithraism, a cult that saw a spectacular rise in popularity just at the same time as Christianity, especially among the Roman soldiers, was considered a dangerous rival by such Christian writers as Justin Martyr, Augustine, Origen, Tertullian, Firmicus Maternus, Ambrosiaster. This explains also why, in many places in Europe, Michael’s shrines have been built very close to where Mithraic temples (called Mithraea) were formerly located, sometimes directly on top, as in Hawarte in Syria. In many cases Michael’s shrines are located on hills, called “Michaelsberg” in Germany or “Monte Sant’Angelo” in Italy, that lie close to Mithraea. This happens for instance in Heidelberg, Riegel am Königstuhl, Mainz, and Wiesbaden in Germany, in Stabiae and Capua Vetere in Italy, in Inveresk in Scotland, and in several other places. In one case, in Sutri, Italy, a Mithraic cave was converted into a still-extant Saint Michael church.
Double-faced Mithraic relief. Rome, 2nd to 3rd century CE (Louvre Museum)
Mithras’ cult probably originated in Persia (where Mithras, or Mithra, was in fact a sort of angel in Zoroastrianism) or in nearby areas but somehow acquired a unique Roman flavor in the first centuries of the Common Era. Its famous iconography – the so-called tauroctony in which Mithras kills a bull while looking towards Sol, the sun-god, encircled by animals that represent constellations and by two torch-bearers – is unknown in Persia, but is endlessly repeated in all Roman Mithraic temples, from Hadrian’s Wall in UK to Alexandria in Egypt, from the Northern Rhine to Portugal, from Crimea to Palestine and Syria. Mithras and Sol formed a sort of binitarian godhead: in many reliefs one sees them feasting together on the bull remains, or Sol keeling before Mithras and then inviting him to join his chariot to ascend to the sky. In many inscriptions, Mithras was even hailed as the unconquered sun, Sol Invictus Mithras.
We mentioned Mount Carmel as the end point of the Michael-Apollo axis. A few kilometers from Mount Carmel lie the archeological remains of Caesarea Maritima, a city-port founded by Herod in 14 b.C.. When, soon after the foundation, the Romans occupied the region, Caesarea became the seat of the Palestine governor, and a very active commercial and cultural center, with famous schools of Jewish and Christian learning. In 1973, a Mithraic cave was discovered in Caesarea, one of the hundreds scattered across the Roman Empire. But the Caesarean temple has a particularity that, so far, has not been unequivocally seen anywhere else: on the day of the summer solstice, June 21st, the sun’s rays at noon filter through a hole in the vault and hit the altar, where Mithras’ tauroctony must have been positioned. According to Porphyry, a Neo-Platonic philosopher that very likely visited Caesarea around mid-third century to study under the learned Origen, one of the central teachings of Mithraism was that souls enter and leave earthly bodies by traversing the celestial spheres along the direction of the solstices. That solstices were important for Mithraists has also been confirmed by archeological remains of large-scale festivals around Mithraea and by other literary sources. If so, the direction of summer and probably winter solstices must have been extremely important for the adepts.
This is perhaps where the key to understanding the Michael-Apollo alignment lies. In fact, as I have shown in my book The Axis of Mithras, the direction of the Sun when setting at the summer solstice or rising at the summer one as seen from Caesarea, is to within a fraction of a degree aligned with the axis of Michael and Apollo. The Caesarea Mithraists might have decided to consecrate this holy direction, the same direction the souls will take under Mithras’ protection after death, and to set up Mithraea wherever possible, or to worship solar deities whenever already existing, like at Delphi and Delos. This perhaps is also the reason why the only two Mithraea found so far in classical Greece are not very far from Delos (on the nearby island of Andros) and from Delphi, at Aigion, just a couple hours navigation away.
What is the role of the prophet Elijah in all of this? Elijah, so tells the First Book of Kings in the Bible, was a performer of wondrous feats: he slaughtered 450 priests of the Canaanite god Baal in a challenge on Mount Carmel, resuscitated the son of a widow, brought rain after a long drought and, most importantly, ascended to Heaven on a fiery chariot, leaving his mantle behind to his disciple Elisha. Elijah’s name in Latin and Greek is very similar to Helios, the sun god, called Sol in the Latin world, and identified with Apollo in the syncretistic mood very typical of Late Antiquity. Because of this and due to the fiery chariot, a universal symbol of the sun, and also due to his association with mountain peaks (even today, in Greece many high mountains are called Profitis Ilias), Elijah was considered by many pagans as an ancient Jewish sun-god. Even some Christian writers thought that Apollo-Helios took some of his features from Elijah.
So it is very likely that in Caesarea, a multicultural city inhabited by Romans, Greeks, Jews, and Christians, the Mithraists absorbed Elijah in their pantheon and equated him to Apollo-Helios, and therefore with Mithras himself, whose initiation rites included a sort of ritual death and resurrection and who, in another set of reliefs, brings forth water. In some ancient illustrations, the figures of Elijah and Elisha, next to the fiery chariot, bear a striking resemblance to the Mithraic iconography of Sol and Mithras. A raven is also seen serving food to Elijah just as in some Mithraic scenes it serves food to Mithras and Sol.
The influence of Elijah’s figure might explain the traditional association of Michael to hilltops, and a curious feature in the most ancient foundation legend of Michael in Europe. The first shrine devoted to Michael in Europe is very likely the temple-cave that can still be visited in Monte Sant’Angelo, on Mount Gargano in Southern Italy, established at the end of the fifth century. The cave, nowadays the crypt of a church, was the place of the first appearance of Michael in the western world. According to the legend, a local lord, a sort of semi-god called Garganus, was shooting an arrow at one of his bulls that was hiding in the cave, when Michael turned the arrow against Garganus, and declared the cave to be his new holy abode. To further consecrate the place, he left a footprint on the rock and a red mantle on the altar. The local bishop, named Laurentius according to a later, uncertain tradition, then erected the church, which has been ever since one of the most important pilgrimage destination in Europe. The bull, the cave, the mantle left behind, all these motifs, and others, could represent leftovers of a previous Mithras-Helios-Elijah local cult. Even the arrow that turns back could be Mithraic in origin: exactly the same miracle is ascribed to Mithra in an ancient Persian hymn.
So perhaps the Garganic cave was a Mithraic cult center; or perhaps a Mithraeum was lying somewhere nearby, for instance in the Roman city of Sipontum, where Bishop Laurentius came from. As we have seen, in many places Michaelitic shrines were erected on hills close to Mithraea. Other Mithraea along the axis and next to Michael’s places were located in Spoleto, in Lyon, and in the nearby Vieu-en-Valromey, and since according to some scholars only a small fraction of Mithraea have been discovered so far, it might be that others will be found sooner or later.
The Garganic legend reverberated for centuries along the axis. Another appearance of Michael is at the origin of the foundation of San Galgano near Siena, where a small abbey called Monte Siepi was originally devoted to Michael. The renowned Benedictine abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is also based on a legend very similar to the Garganic one, again with a lost bull and various appearances of Michael. In all these stories, Michael or his protégés fight against demons to clean the place: as we know, pagan gods were routinely identified with demons in early Christianity.
The Michael-Apollo axis could then have arisen out of a previous Mithras’ axis along the salvific solstice direction. Perhaps the Caesarean Mithraists impressed by the fact that Delphi and Delos were aligned with Mount Carmel, and with Caesarea itself, on the solstice direction, took this as a numinous sign from their god. Or, they decided the solstice direction to be a holy one also because pointing towards the famous Apollinean places.
Many Mithraists were Roman soldiers, used to long marches and sea travels, and certainly capable, even with the limited technology of the time, of orienting themselves with fair accuracy even across large distances. It can indeed be estimated that the error one could have made in walking or riding over one or two thousand kilometers while keeping the sought-for direction using the stars or the sun is fully compatible with the average scatter of the Michael or Apollo shrines along the axis.
Once established, Mithras’ Axis would have had its own life, even after the pagan origin was all but forgotten. Perhaps the last trace can be seen in the legendary adventures of Saint Brendan, a sixth century Irish monk that founded innumerable monasteries in Ireland and elsewhere and whose disciple saint Finnan is considered the founder of the Michaelitic monastery on Skellig Michael. In the saga of his sea voyages across the Atlantic in search of the Earthly Paradise, Saint Brendan travels for seven years without caring too much about the direction to be taken, left in the good hands of the Divine Providence. With only an exception, right at the beginning, when, it is said in the chronicle, he set sail “in the direction of the summer solstice”.
Today, Saint Michael’s shrines from Ireland to Italy are among the most impressive sacred destinations in Europe. Fairy bays, rugged islets, romantic gothic ruins, almost inaccessible monasteries, mark since centuries the landscape and inspire awe to every visitor, regardless of personal beliefs. But perhaps, some of these shrines are witness also to another story: a lost tradition of mystery cults, of soul’s path to Heaven, of pagan’s fight against triumphant Christianity.
Copyright 2016 By Lukas Mandelbaum
The Axis of Mithras: Souls, salvation, and shrines across ancient Europe
An ancient mystery cult spread across Europe by the Roman soldiers. The resistance of the last pagans against the triumphant Christianity. The influence of Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Neo-Platonic teachings on the legends of Michael the Archangel. A historical journey along an enigmatic Axis of shrines that runs for over 4,000 km from Ireland to Israel.