Apotheosis: Temporary Deification in the Mithras Liturgy

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Recently, a friend who was studying this book asked me about the Mithras liturgy in the Greek Magical Papyri, and what connections it might have to the vivification of an icon.

The short answer was, “not much, really,” but I did discover some really interesting connections between this “Unwritten Work” of a mystery tradition that someone wrote down for his only daughter, and the recent study of apotheosis that I’ve been doing.

I’d like to share with you the highlights.

We Are Talking About Temporary Apotheosis

“This immortalization takes place three times a year. And if anyone, O child, after the teaching, wishes to disobey, then for him it will no longer be in effect.” — PGM IV, 749-750

Whether it is the case that people, generally, have three opportunities per year to become immortal, or immortality remains in effect until the rules are broken, we are talking about reversible apotheosis. The following quote, however, makes me think that we are discussing the former, and not the latter:

“Hail, 0 Lord, 0 Master of the water! Hail, 0 Founder of the earth! Hail, 0 Ruler of the wind! 0 Bright Lightener [barbarous names] Give revelation, O Lord, concerning the NN matter. O Lord, while being born again, I am passing away; while growing and having grown, I am dying; while being born from a life-generating birth, I am passing on, released to death-as you have founded, as you havc decreed, and have established the mystery. I am PHEKOURA MIOURI.”

After you have said these things, he will immediately respond with a revelation. Now you will grow weak in soul and will not be in yourself when he answers you. He speaks the oracle to you in verse, and after speaking he will depart. But you remain silent, since you will be able to comprehend all these matters by yourself; for at a later time you will remember infallibly the things spoken by the great god, even if the oracle contained myriads of verses.” — PGM IV, 714-731

Now, there are many things in the liturgy which suggest that the person performing this particular spell is dying. Certainly, many mysteries of Ancient Greece, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, revolve around how to help one’s soul to survive the dying process, or to assure a good outcome in death. The fact that the writer here mentions that the person having these extraordinary experiences is to ask about a very specific matter, and the fact that it is stated that the god will speak in verse an oracle on this matter which the person will be able to remember at a later time, in tandem with the suggestion that the event in question can happen three times a year makes me instead think that this is, instead, guided astral projection.

It makes some interesting arguments for what a deity actually is, in the minds of the people writing.

In many texts, the Theoi are equally noted as Athanatoi, or, the immortal. Deification in many stories, involves ambrosia, which when one looks back into the etymology, means something like “overcoming death.” [Deriving, actually, from the same PIE roots as the Sanskrit Amrta, another death defying substance]

I suspect that “immortalization,” “deification,” and “apotheosis” can essentially be used interchangeably for this discussion.

It is tempting to look to all of the highly trying and sometimes lethal methods by which our four examples of apotheosis, Ariadne, Psyche, Herkles and Asklepios, became immortal, and suggest that apotheosis means to die and to overcome death — that is, to transcend the physical and to become a being of pure spirit. However, to recap a previous argument, Demeter had every expectation of being able to make Demophon physically immortal while he was growing up, and nearly succeeded. Read more about that here.

While apotheosis can certainly happen after death, as was very clearly the case for Asklepios and Ariadne, simply having a brush with lethal circumstances suffices, as the stories of Psyche, Herakles and Demophon illustrate. I believe that, for this reason, death is very much a part of this liturgy, even though I strongly suspect that the initiate returns directly to the body they very recently vacated after receiving the oracle.

Yet the brush with death, and surviving it, would not be enough. It is being accepted into the world of the gods which completes the process. The god speaks, the dying and undying occur, and strictly for the time during which the initiate is in the presence of the god, he or she is as an immortal.

Admittedly, the statement, “I am PHEKOURA MIOURI” makes me think that perhaps the initiate is only temporarily becoming a part of some sort of established immortal. Then again… wait, a human soul can do that? What other benefits might there be to this, other than simply gaining an oracle from Helios?

The role of the elements in immortalization, or, how the worlds connect

The Mithras liturgy is extremely elemental. I want to be really clear that when I say “elemental” I do not mean the 4/5 elements exactly as they are understood in the Wiccan sense. The ancient Greeks had a distinct understanding of the elements, their attributions and their directions. The Greek understanding of elements is perhaps only slightly more similar to the Wiccan elements than the Chinese ones are, though all three groups ascribe the elements to the points of the pentagram in various ways, and the Wiccans borrow the Greek schema of hot/cold/dry/moist in various combinations.

The concept of densities is more important, in a lot of ways, than in “directions.” For example, the Greeks thought less about whether West was Water or Earth (a traditional Christian verses Hebrew distinction), and a lot more about the fact Earth sank in Water, and that a thing’s physical nature owed to the composition of its elements. This view is expressed exhaustively in Aristotle’s Physics, which you might be interested to read at some later date.

Understanding this concept of densities — that certain elements sink, and others rise, and that things sinking and rising had much to do with an understanding that the breath of the soul was a subtler and more buoyant thing than the earthly body,  is crucial to understanding exactly what the elements are doing in the Mithras liturgy.


“First origin of my origin, [..] first beginning of my beginning, [..] spirit of spirit, the first of the spirit in me, [..], fire given by god to my mixture of the mixturcs in me, the first of the fire in me, [..], water of water, the first of the water in me, [..], earthy material, the first of the earthy material in me, [..], my complete body, I, NN whose mothcr is NN, which was formed by a noble arm and an incorruptible right hand in a world without light and yet radiant, without soul and yet alive with soul, [..]” — PGM IV, 490-499, emphasis mine, barbarous names omitted for ease of reading.

Here, the word used for “spirit” is Pneuma, and is regarded to be a reference to Airm one of the four elements. According to Aristotle, barring Aether, Air is the least dense of the elements. If it were not, then fire would float above it. Fire is the next most dense of the elements, followed by water, and lastly, the heaviest is Earth. This part of the liturgy explains the process by which incarnation occurs: from the subtle to the gross, the light to the dense, the simple to the complex.

“Now if it be your will, [..] give me over to immortal birth and, following that, to my underlying nature, so that, after the present need which is pressing me exceedingly, I may gaze upon thc immortal beginning with the immortal spirit, [..], with the immortal water, [..] with thc most steadfast air, [..] that I may be born again in thought, [..] and the sacred spirit may breathe in me, [..]; So that I may wonder at thc sacred fire, [..] that I may gaze upon the unfathomable, awesome water of the dawn, [..] and the vivifying and encircling aether may hear me, [..] for today I am about to behold, with immortal eyes-” PGM IV, 500-516

Ok, the beginning eludes me a bit, but the basic idea is that the aspirant is being reborn into a body comprised entirely of immortal (sacred, enduring, steadfast, undying, etc) elements. In the part which I have italicized, the order of densities is given again: Air, Fire and Water. Yet, as the fourth element, the element which gives solidity to the form into which the aspirant is being reborn, Earth is replaced by Aether.

This makes for some intensely interesting possibilities about ritualized techniques for astral projection derived from the PGM, much better, on the whole, than the “Step 1: Formulate a light body, Step 2: … Step 3: Profit!” directions I was given during my Golden Dawn training.

A thought occurs to me about the Air-Water-Air sequence at the beginning, there. Yet, my thoughts return me to the Hebrew tradition.

Now of course life is counted, in the ancient world, from breath to breath. The first breath marks the start of a life, and the last breath marks its end. In the Hebrew tradition, ritual death and rebirth is a very common thing. When a person falls grievously ill, for example, one custom is to immerse the person completely in water, stopping their breath, and then to have them emerge with a new name. This process tricks the angel of death, so it is said, into thinking that the person they are looking for has already died, and persuades them to stop looking for said person.

Here, we see that pattern, too: Air (breath) – Water (no breath) – Air (breath). Then, the person is born again “in thought.” 

“I, born mortal from mortal womb, but transformed by tremendous power and an incorruptible right hand / and with immortal spirit, the immortal Aion and master of the fiery diadems-I, sanctified through holy consecrations-while there subsists within mc, holy, for a short time, my human soul-might, which I will again receive after the present bitter and relentless necessity which is pressing down upon me-I, NN, whose mother is NN, according to the immutable decree of god, [..]. Since it is impossible for me, born / mortal, to rise with the golden brightnesses of the immortal brilliance, [..], stand, O perishable nature of mortals, and at once [receive] me safe and sound after the inexorable and pressing need. For I am the son [..],I am [..]”

Again with the “incorruptible right hand,” which, I guess, is the hand of some divinity or other, ordering the elements so as to make their mixture functional and alive, rather than inert.

What perhaps interests me the most is this idea of two distinct physical existences, the mortal and the immortal, connected only by whatever thing it is that survives the process of death.  Something maybe a little like this:


The Philosophy Presented

It is unclear whether the immortalization here is meant purely for oracular work, as rites to ease the passage of death, or both. It is certain, however, that by no means was this ritual meant to turn a human being into a separate, named entity which others in their order would worship. Yet, it does seem that a clear and cohesive idea is laid out in terms of the metaphysics of apotheosis.

There is the world of gods, the Mithras liturgy seems to posit, and the world of humans. These two worlds are connected but comprised of slightly different elements. The process by which it seems an initiate of these mysteries becomes immortalized echoes the metaphysical assumptions of Demeter: one simply replaces the mortal elements with immortal ones. In the case of Demophon, this was done by burning them away in a fire. In the case of those pursuing the Mithraic mysteries, through divine intervention, referenced as “the incorruptible right hand,” a new body is made for the aspirant, created out of the immortal elements. The old one, made of mortal elements, is left behind in the world of human beings.

I see three distinct practical applications. Firstly, the formulae presented here would make for a great astral projection routine. Secondly, and this is a bit more complex, it might serve as a way of giving a human being an intentional mythic presence. Lastly, ideas begin to form in my head about the way in which a human might be connected to a patron deity, even as the mortal and immortal worlds are connected. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I think there is a statement implicit in the Mithras Liturgy about why a practitioner should desire to attain Apotheosis, even if it is temporary, and even if the state is attained in such a way that erases their former mortal identity.

Flatly: Apotheosis requires a divine patron, and the process of apotheosis is the greatest intimacy possible with that divinity.


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