Mithra in Commagene: some sort of mix-up

The sixth and final part in a series of weekly installments featuring insights from the authors of ‘Images of Mithra’, published in March 2017, looks at the Kingdom of Commagene, the appearance of ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’, and what we might learn about the nature of gods.

I’m somewhat at a loss over how to start a piece on a site that has prompted its fair share of clichés. The mountain top of Nemrut Dağı in southern Turkey, on which we find one of the most interesting monuments of the late Hellenistic period, tends to inspire the type of holiday photos that should somewhat repulse all of us – smouldering looks into the distance at dusk, whilst wearing clothes that you would never normally wear, but that you are because you’re just so in the moment, for a fantastic example of which, see below. Wondrous, mystical, magical and so on, there are no longer the words to raise the site above its own hyperbole.

Nemrut Dağı view
View from the summit (or there abouts) of Nemrut Dağı

It would be unfair to say that the clichés evoked in travel guides and amongst tourists in response to Nemrut Dağı are repeated by scholars, but nevertheless it has become an exemplar of the combination of traditions, or syncretism, and not without good reason. It is here that we find the names and depictions of several gods, and a very long inscription with directions for their worship erected in the 1st century BC by the then king of Commagene, Antiochus I Theos. One of these gods is referred to as ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’, a combination of four separate and distinguishable gods’ names in other contexts, and which equally combines three gods from the Greek tradition, with ‘Mithras’, which had connections to Armenia, Iran, and further east in northern India and Pakistan. This multi-named god was by no means alone: a ‘Heracles-Artagnes-Ares’ appears alongside him, as does a ‘Zeus-Oromasdes’, which are also combinations of gods’ names from these different traditions.

The final chapter of Images of Mithra was the last to be added – in the first iteration of our collaborative reflection on the name and images of Mithra, its appearance in Commagene was absent. Earlier than the others by at least a hundred and fifty years, it had seemed detached despite its geographical position between the other examples we had already chosen. In the end, what made the case for including it was not a desire for completeness, or to provide a link between east and west, but rather because of the issues that the combination of images and names there encapsulate so well. That, and perhaps a certain amount of pizazz – the remains are just stunning.

Nemrut Dağı
The colossal statues on Nemrut Dağı. Photo: Klearchos Kapoutis.

As much as the site offers a fascinating example of cultural fusions, or syncretism, it is not always entirely clear what we do with the combination of names or how it impacts upon what the gods were here. Individuals tend to have several: given names, surnames, patronymics, official titles, nicknames, pet-names, and so on. In the last week alone, I have been referred to by everything from the general ‘sir’ and ‘mate’, to ones that I’d rather not divulge. The combination of names might be viewed in a similar light – an attempt to list the variety of possible means of identifying an individual or even god. Name-listing was a particular habit of Hellenistic kings – Antiochus, who erected these monuments, was officially ‘Antiochus I Theos Dikaios Epiphanes Philorhomaios Philhellen’ or ‘Antiochus I the god, just, manifest, friend of Romans, friend of Greeks’. But this raises an interesting question. Antiochus was unlikely to be referred to as ‘Epiphanes’ or ‘Philhellen’ – they are titles, and not specific to their holder. But could the god ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’ be called just ‘Helios’? Would that have referred to the same god?

As soon as we ask these questions, we begin to confront the possible existence of gaps between what one person proposed – through names and images – and what another understood. The name ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’ was a reckoning of a divine figure – it is highly likely that it was intended to relate to a single god. It does, however, combine names drawn from different traditions. In this sense, it appears that someone with knowledge of several gods had more or less come to the conclusion that they were in fact the same god. This is not to say that each did not possess individual facets, but rather that enough similarities existed between them to think of them as one. The gap that exists between what is proposed in this name, and what might be taken from it, is that one could still see in this figure ‘Helios’ and refer to it as such if one wanted to. Few proscriptions of understanding existed, only propositions.

Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes stele
Stele featuring Antiochus I Theos and Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes from Nemrut Dağı. Photo: Herman Brijder.

Because it deliberately uses four distinct names, it is quite easy for us to spot that a distinctive proposition about the nature of gods was being made by Antiochus. But the difficulty of making this statement, and of rationalising the combination of traditions is also demonstrated remarkably clearly by the images of the god found not only at Nemrut Dağı, but in the rest of Commagene. We find depictions of Antiochus engaged in dexiosis – grasping the right-hand of a god labelled ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes’ – in several places in his kingdom. In all of these, Antiochus’ depictions remain consistent. But the god he stands with changes dramatically.

Names are relatively easy to combine and add to ad infinitum, but you can’t mix a nude and a clothed depiction of a god. Given that fact, it is fascinating that Antiochus did not opt for consistency, but rather displayed the god in two quite distinct ways – in a Greek manner, and in one designed, at least, to evoke an eastern one. That might be surprising to us because it would seem to contradict the notion of the god as one thing or another, but of course the god was not one thing or another, but was or could be all manner of things, even to the same individual. What the example from Commagene shows us is the extraordinary fluidity that could exist in ancient understandings of divinities. This example from Commagene might seem a touch extreme, but in fact the propositions that were made about what a god was – through names and images in particular – in a variety of contexts around the ancient world, were really not so dissimilar.

Stele featuring Antiochus I and Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, Gaziantep Museum. Photo: Charles Crowther.

My own trip to the site was made back in 2008 – alas I’ve not yet been back – but I have fond memories of it. Despite the clichés that prevailed in my dress sense and wistful poses, my travelling companions, who included two theology students and an architect, took very different things from their visit than I did as a would-be Classicist. Even more varied were the thoughts of the wonderfully excitable Korean Pentecostal church group with whom we hitched a lift down the mountain, and ended up spending the entire day with pottering around Gaziantep. As cautious as we should be of drawing anachronistic parallels between our lives and those of ancient Commagenians, the variety of responses to ostensibly the same objects, images, and incredible settings, is not something we should lose sight of in our study of ancient religion. These names and images were and remain a large part of what gods were, and they have never been one thing or another.

Heading down the mountain in style.


Author: Dominic Dalglish

All images ⓒ Empires of Faith 2017

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