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Cult Dynamics and Information Technologies: The Case of Mithraism

Matthew McCarty

University of British Columbia

The recognition that Roman religious practices were deeply enmeshed in social life has led to a host of recent work on the shifting dynamics of cult practices, places, and images across the Roman world that went hand-in-hand with the changing power structures of the empire. At the same time, greater focus on localized social frameworks has tessellated accounts of cult life, even in cults (like strains of Christianity) explicitly aiming for a sense of universalism. Against such a background, strong continuities through time and space demand even greater explanation, and perhaps no other cult-system demonstrates the level of homogeneity in architecture, iconography, and ritual practice as Mithraism. How and why did communities engaged in the worship of Mithras maintain this coherence across the Roman world over several centuries? Using material from the mithraea at Dura-Europos, Mainz, and the new excavations that I co-direct at Apulum, I argue that the dynamics of cult change and continuity in the Roman Empire need to be considered in terms of information transfer-networks and information technologies, not on the level of esoteric interpretations (long the bugbear of ancient religious studies), but on the level of ritual craft. Focusing on information technologies and mediation allows us to move beyond the false binary inherent in Harvey Whitehouse’s “modes of religiosity,” the most common contemporary anthropological model used to understand the interplays between cult, knowledge, and mediation in the ancient world. In Mithraism, the particular information redundancies mediated in various ways (through images, through pageantry, through the manipulation of “small finds” objects) as well as the particular practices (including foundation rites, attested in a series of deposits that have never before been linked) that drove the connectivity of local communities created the ideational infrastructure that allowed a coherent and stable “Mithraic package” to move around the empire. Shifting discussion from general models of social embeddedness to the means of knowledge-transfer can also offer a more robust explanatory model not just for Mithraism, but for the dynamics of cult change and continuity across the empire more broadly.

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God the Anthropologist: Text, Material and Theory in the Study of Ancient Religion

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