Mithra: the surprising inadequacy of labels

The fifth in a series of weekly installments featuring insights from the authors of ‘Images of Mithra’, published in March 2017, looks at coins in the Kushan empire, and why having a name for something isn’t always a good thing.

In a previous post, Rachel Wood wrote about the rock reliefs at Tāq-e Bostān in Iran. The earliest of those reliefs, discussed in chapter 4 of Images of Mithra, features three figures (if you ignore the deceased Roman emperor at the bottom). None of them have labels. At various points all three of the figures have been identified with Ahura Mazda, the highest god in the contemporary Sasanian pantheon, but by comparison with other depictions which are labelled (coins and the images at Nemrut Daǧı) it seems plausible that the relief depicts the Sasanian kings Shapur II and Ardashir II, and the god Mihr.

This relief is pretty typical of ancient art in that it is not accompanied by explanatory notes. Presumably contemporaries got their exegesis elsewhere, perhaps from some complex initiation into knowledge passed down through a secret cult or simply because the visual cues (radiating halos and bull slaying) were just so widely understood that the meaning seemed obvious. And trying to ‘read’ objects whose meaning its makers and original viewers thought was obvious is a frustrating task.

In fact the only thing more frustrating than an image without a label is an image with a label.

Zenobius detail Dura Europos
Detail of a relief from Dura Europos depicting a god slaying a bull (Mithra)

In Images of Mithra we picked a rather unusual subject. It is precisely the presence of labels on our images that causes problems. Take for example the Zenobius relief from Dura-Europos and this coin of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka I (AD 127-150). Would it have occurred to any modern viewer that these two images represented the same god if they were not labelled with versions of the same name, Mithras and Miiro respectively?

Miiro Kushan
Reverse of a Kushan gold coin depicting a god making a gesture of blessing (Miiro)

Of course it is open to question how many ancient viewers would have seen both images. Our historical perspective always tends to obliterate differences of time and space. A well-traveled merchant might have handled Kushan coins in an Indian Ocean port and, perhaps, have seen the inside of a Mithraeum. If they had quizzed local informants they might have learned the names, if not they would have needed to read both inscriptions. This is a possible scenario, perhaps, but it is far from likely.

And the question of literacy makes it difficult to know what a label would mean to contemporaries. You need to be able to read Bactrian, or at the very least sound out Greek characters, to make sense of the inscription on the coin. Even if you were literate you might not be literate in the right script. Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts were also widely used in the Kushan Empire and we know that proficiency in one made no guarantee of proficiency in another. Some of those who engraved the coins were clearly not able to read Bactrian.

Mislabelled coin
Coin of the Kushan Emperor Huvishka (c. AD 150–190) depicting a goddess labelled as Mioro

This coin features the image of a totally different divinity, the goddess Ardochsho. And yes, the label still reads Mithra – so someone at the mint screwed up. How do we know this is a mistake? Well, this particular coin was made several decades after the first in a city further south, and at the time it was minted, a lot of similar mistakes were being made. But it is not always that simple.

Helios Kushan
Coin of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka (c. AD 127–150) depicting a god labelled as Helios

The figure in the centre of this coin is clearly the same one as was labelled Miiro, though that is not the label here. This coin was made a few years before the first coin and in the same mint (Balkh, in modern Afghanistan). Give or take a year it was made in AD 127. It is possible to be that specific because up to the reign of Kanishka I, coins in the region used Greek inscriptions. Only after the first year of his reign were these replaced with inscriptions in the Bactrian language. As part of that change the labels on the gods changed; Selene to Mao, Hephaistos to Athsho, Anemos to Oado, and in this case Helios to Miiro.

So clearly this is some sort of translation issue. Helios is the Greek name for the image, Miiro the Bactrian one. But that isn’t very helpful. Are we to understand that the image is really Mithra but when Greek was used he was called Helios? Or is it really Helios but when using Bactrian you call him Miiro? Is the figure some other god, perhaps the Indian Surya, but with two different translations? Or did the people making the coin really not see any difference between these different divinities? At least one Chinese visitor thought these were just different languages’ words for the sun, which is doubly unhelpful as the Roman Mithras is quite distinct from the personification of the sun.

There is no real consensus amongst Kushan scholars on this point but quite a few prefer to think of this figure as some version of Mithra. That is because Kushan divinities in general seem to be ‘sort of’ Iranian. By ‘sort of’ I mean they look very much like evidence from contemporary Iran and from Zoroastrian texts, but not quite. Two of the most prominent divinities, Wesho and Nana, barely feature in those Iranian contexts, and Ahura Mazda is relegated to a relatively minor part in the Kushan images. So the assumption is that the Kushan pantheon shares some common antecedent with Sasanian Iran and Zoroastrianism. And for that reason the coins are usually interpreted as showing Mithra, translated into Greek as Helios. However, since the makers of the coins continue to use Dionysius and Heracles as labels long after they abandon Greek, and Buddha without ever employing a contemporary Indian language, it seems unlikely it is that straightforward.

Wesho Kushan
Gold Kushan coin depicting a god resembling the modern Hindu Siva but labelled as the Iranian god Wesho

A similar problem arises with the image at Nemrut Daǧı labelled ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’. Are these translations, if so of what? The label seems inadequate to the task of explaining just what the engraver was thinking. If a solution to this problem was enough to convince you to buy Images of Mithra I would be tempted to promise one, but the honest answer is this question is not really soluble. So much of what people understand about an image, or a name, comes from the intangible network of the society they are embedded in, and so little of it from the actual image, or label, that our reconstructions can only ever be partial ones.


Author: Robert Bracey

All images ⓒ Empires of Faith 2017

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