Mysteries of Mithras: Klimov, Macfarlane, and You Know Who

In the first scene of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, two boys are digging in a sandbank pulling out Nazi helmets and belt buckles. It’s not clear if they’re in an old campsite or a mass grave. The only places I’ve ever seen like it, topographically, are the banks of Midwestern rivers like The Platte and The Wisconsin.

It’s Belarus in 1943, and the younger boy is throwing voices, taunting Flyora for not having a gun. A truck full of live Nazis drives past, and the boys know exactly what to do: they dive out of sight. The truck is gone and Flyora, who looks 14 or maybe 40, now has his hands deep in the sand, rocking to pry something loose underneath. He humps the earth for a minute then stands up proudly with a German-made rifle he just pulled from the ground.

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Mithras

Weirdly resonant, this scene made perfect sense to me, since I’d just read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. (Everybody else was reading The Overstory, and I was reading Underland, go figure.) It’s one of those books that gets called “narrative non-fiction,” but I don’t think it would be an insult to just call it a long-ass magazine article. A very well-read nature writer gives himself an ambitiously broad mandate for underground places to visit and tells us what he sees.

So there are chapters about cave exploration, giant mines under the North Sea, a days-long punk tour under Paris, nuclear storage facilities, and rivers under glaciers. Here’s a typical anecdote delivered matter-of-factly:

“Another day, near the highest point of the Mendip plateau, Sean and I walk what is known as ‘gruffy ground.’ ‘Gruffy’ means ‘rough,’ ‘rugged,’ and gruffy ground is the relic landscape of lead-mining activities dating back more than 2,000 years. Small-scale Roman mining left behind hundreds of small heaps of tailings; in the eighteenth century these were heated to melt out any residual lead ore. This double working of the landscape has left the ground humped with small hills of toxic slag…shunned by grazing animals which sense its contamination.”

You had me at “gruffy”!

Reviews of Underland tend to focus on its scientific pessimism about the anthropocene epoch, but the anthropology in it turned me on the most. That early humans buried their dead long before they had permanent homes for the living seems to me something we need to contemplate if we’re going to kick the plastic and petroleum habits.

No part of Underland hit me as personally as the short section on Mithraism, about the god Mithras. A Mediterranean interpretation of a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god, you could call it a perversion of the Persian, but the cult of Mithras does not even get a mention in the pocket bible on mythology I grew up with, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Mithras had a following all over the Roman empire, but especially, they say, in Western Europe.

The Mysteries of Mithras was a rival spiritual insurgency in the centuries before Constantine made another fringe cult the official religion of the empire. Mithras was typically shown killing a bull, and membership in his mysteries was limited to men. (The Christians converted women, and were sometimes accused of subverting the patriarchal family.) His followers included many soldiers, who would stop at a mithraeum – which was always underground, or at least decorated to look like a cave – on their way to or from battle. That men fearing for their lives, or preparing to do violent things to others, would stop to worship a bull-killer underground resonates somewhere deep in the male psyche.

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Macfarlane looks fearlessly at questions like “What radioactive isotopes will outlast the human species?” but Mithras seems to give him the heebie-jeebies, and he quickly pivots to a more hopeful future: “Thinking of the diver-explorers of the Timavo as modern Mithraists…I am reminded of the historically gendered nature of the underland.” He touches on Orpheus and Eurydice, et cetera, then anecdotes about “women rewriting these ancient archetypes with courage and expertise”: female cavers in Uzbekistan and a microbiologist at Wind Cave in South Dakota.

That’s great, but it seems like a cave left unexplored. Why men? What do they see underground? Is it birth envy re-expressing itself long into the era of the hunter-agricultural division of labor? The women grow things every day, and the men might kill a large mammal only once in a while, so they have to get their earthy creation groove on?

Three years ago, I weakly tried expressing the profoundness of Black Sabbath’s last show at Madison Square Garden by saying it felt like a chthonic rite. What I was hinting at was more Mithraic: men going underground.

This week we learned that, partly for obvious reasons, we’ve passed a milestone: renewable energy has surpassed coal in the U.S., and that’s good news. What’s more, what little hope there was for a reprieve for the coal-burning power plants scheduled to be shut down in the next few years is also gone, and that’s great news.

Realistically though, the bond between man and pickaxe, and the psychic satisfaction of the journey underground, have not gone away. By itself, “solar panel installation” will never hit the bass notes, or monosyllables, of “coal mine.” When Trump said in 2016 that he was going to bring coal jobs back, a few gullible people might have believed him, but many more stood up and cheered because it was a profession of faith. That the men should be in the mines carries the weight of “God is in His heaven.”

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