Dura Europos Inscription

 

The central scene shows a conventional Mithras, in Parthian-style clothes, and wearing boots, killing the bull. On his belt hang two sheaths containing daggers or swords, and he holds a third in his right hand. A small dog jumps up at the front on a convenient shelf, well away from the wound, while a small snake skulks in the lower right corner; a rudimentary raven, looking rather like a plucked chicken, peers down at Mithras’ Phrygian cap. The bull’s tail hangs down, just as on several Mithraic reliefs from Syria; there is an obscure limp above it which may represent the scorpion, of which there is otherwise no sign [or possibly a lion, facing right?]. Above the cave entrance are posed the busts of radiate Helios (l.) and Selene, backed by a crescent, separated by a row of 7 stars. The places usually taken by the luminaries are here occupied by the torchbearers, who stand erect and fully frontal, each dressed and equipped like Mithras with two daggers, and holding a spear in the left hand (unique detail). Cautes, on the l., is considerably larger than Cautopates on the r., which may or may not be significant.

Side-scenes:

Within the frame of the cave, from lower left:
1) Above the ‘scorpion’ or ‘lion’ there sits a fat naked baby wearing a Phrygian cap, holding out his hands towards clusters of grapes growing from a vine that emerges from the rock. Unique scene. [This seems to evoke an otherwise unknown narrative of the babyhood of Mithras, which introduced the theme of grapes and wine, evidently of importance in the feast scene and so in Mithraic feasting. The baby’s attitude recalls that of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf.]
2) Above the baby, Mithras petragenes, with both hands, most unusually, resting on the rock.
3) Above that, a Saturnus in Phrygian cap and Parthian dress (unique detail) reclining on his l. arm, and holding an object, ? harpè, in his r. hand.
4) To the right of Mithras, a scene from the narrative of Mithras and Helios/Sol: Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap, stands in front of kneeling Helios, holding the latter’s jaw in his r. hand, and places his l. hand on Helios’ head. The weathering of the relief has dulled the details, but this seems to be a unique variant on the common ‘investiture’ scene.

The panels outside the frame of the cave:
Left register from top:
1) Two figures in Persian dress and wearing Phrygian caps, presumably the torchbearers, standing on blocks, carry a large cauldron between them on a pole (unique scene). This unique scene seems to presuppose the unique scene at Dura in which the torchbearers carry the dead bull on a pole since it seems to allude to the practice of boiling sacrificial meat.
2) A small figure in a Phrygian cap, seated on a boulder, holding an unidentifiable elongated object in his r. hand. Immediately to his right, a stream flows down from the block supporting the figure above. Beside the stream, seven spheres lie jumbled about. That the seated figure may be Saturn, this time holding a harpè. For the seven balls, the range of seven objects stretched between the forelegs of the bull on Zenobios’ altar at Dura, identified by the Preliminary Report as small altars, but recently by L.A. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: a study of religious interaction in Roman Syria Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 138 (Leyden 1999), 301-4 as balls or spheres. Unique scene. [Prof. Turcan acutely suggests per litteras that the seated figure may be a poorly-understood ‘water-miracle’ - there is plenty of evidence of incompetence or lack of clarity in the relief. What then are the spheres?
3) Mithras taurophoros, apparently naked except for a Phrygian cap and breech-clout, walking to the l. (v. unusual, if not unique, direction).The feast scene, with radiate Helios (l.) and Mithras, both dressed in Persian or Parthian dress, face forward over the rim of the base, holding rhyta.

Along the base of the relief an inscription in Greek: language unknown!

(Someone having ago at the inscription!!!)

In his earlier article de Jong understood the first phrase to me ‘from the God’s deeds, from among the incidents in the God’s life’, which would have neatly fitted our understanding of the nature of the by-scenes. But he now considers that this would have been an impossible sense in the context. In the light of a similar phrase in a Christian inscription from Syria (IGLS 315), where it may mean ‘because of the things received from God’, he prefers the notion of a dedicatory formula. The name Absalmos, derived from the Aramaic ‘b(d)šlm’ ‘servant of Shalman’, is maionly found in Dura, Palmyra, Hatra, Edessa, and the mid-Euphrates in general, and is a further confirmation, alongside the Duran iconographic parallels, of the relief’s Syrian provenance. We may assume that Absalmos was the current Father of the community. De Jong suggests a date between late II and late III cent. AD: it is not possible to be more specific.