Marianne and Mithra



Marianne is one of the symbols of the French Republic and embodies the Republic as much as the tricolored flag. Marianne represents the permanence of those values which bind French citizens to the Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. A Marianne is a bust of woman wearing a Phrygian cap. In this article we will be interested in the origin of this bonnet.

The cap was worn for the first time in France at the Procope, a coffee shop where revolutionaries used to gather. It resembles the cap worn by freed slaves in the Roman Empire; slaves whose masters had endowed them with freedom and whose descendants became fully-fledged Roman citizens. The Phrygian cap was thus a symbol of freedom as early as Antiquity already.

The oldest traces of this bonnet date back to Mithra, the Iranian divinity of the Sun, of friendship, oath, and contracts. Mithraism was the most widespread religion in Europe before Christianity. The statues of Mithra, which have survived to present day, represent Mithra wearing a Phrygian cap and a floating cape; he is kneeling on the primordial bull, holding a dagger in the right hand and drawing the bull’s head towards the back with the left.

Mithra, dressed in Persian and wearing the Phrygian cap, sacrifices the primordial bull. From the bull’s body were born the plants and animals beneficial to man, in spite of the opposition of the Snake and the Scorpion, agents of the Evil (Collection: Museum of the Louvre, Paris, France).

During the French revolution, the first Phrygian caps appeared on the heads of the French a few months after the storming of the Bastille. They were made of red cloth, and matched the striped dresses of fervent revolutionaries, the sans-culottes. It seems that an almost identical bonnet capped the sailors and the galley slaves of the Mediterranean, and it is possible that the French revolutionaries coming from the Southern France brought it to Paris. To wear the Phrygian cap was indeed a way of advertising one’s patriotism. This bonnet was also one of the outstanding features of June 20, 1792, a historical day which saw the people invading the Tuileries. The infuriated crowd managed to reach the king himself, and a municipal officer named Mouchet handed a Phrygian cap placed at the end of a spade to the monarch. The king, who was bewildered, was at a loss as to how to react. He seized the bonnet, and set it on his head. The gesture somewhat alleviated the attackers’ aggressiveness.

The Phrygian cap was also worn by Trojan mythical characters such as Eneus. However, the cap of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, waspilleus, an ordinary round felt bonnet. On the old representations of Libertas, in particular on the Roman imperial currency, she holds a pilleus in one hand, and often a rod (vindicta) in the other. Libertas, however, never wears the pilleus, and is not associated with the Phrygian cap.

After assassinating Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), the conspirators paraded in the streets, raising a Phrygian cap at the top of a spade. The image of a bonnet on a spade, as a symbol of freedom in artistic works, appears around 1570 in the Netherlands in iconography. But the bonnet does not have any particular form and often conforms to the local habit; it thus resembles neither the pilleus nor the Phrygian cap. This iconographic tradition developed in various European countries and became a source of inspiration for American artists during the struggle for independence.

There was a clear return to the Phrygian cap in its traditional form — with a bent point — in France, around 1790. Under the influence of the Jacobins, the red bonnet came to epitomize the Revolution. The American revolutionaries also borrowed the bonnet of freedom from the French, but only a score of years after the declaration of independence.

Under the first Republic (1792-1804), female characters, bearing slogans of freedom and Revolution, were represented via paintings or sculptures. They were sometimes accompanied by spades decorated with the Phrygian cap. A decree of 1792 stipulated that “the seal of the state would be changed and would carry the emblem of France under the features of an upright woman dressed to the Antique, holding a spade with a Phrygian cap (or bonnet of liberty) in the right hand, leaning her left hand on a stack of arms, and having a rudder at her feet”. The Tables of the Law and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen are also to be seen lying at her feet, on display to the world.

The advent of the First Empire (1804-1815) weakened the representation of Marianne. Her name reappeared at some point during the second Republic (1848-1852), but often took on a negative signification. Marianne was exposed in the form of a statue or of bust, particularly in the town halls, a direct representation of the Republic. She wore a Phrygian cap to value the revolutionary character, which was sometimes criticized as a call for disobedience. The bonnet was thus replaced by a diadem or a crown, in order to give her a wiser character.

During the Second Empire (1852-1870), Napoleon III replaced the figure of Marianne on coins and postage stamps with his own effigy. The Commune of Paris (1871) triggered a feeling of veneration for the fighting revolutionary with a bare bust, wearing the red Phrygian cap of the sans-culotte, but whose name was not Marianne.

Under the Third Republic (1875-1940) two models clashed, the statue with wheat-ear tiara and the statue with Phrygian cap. The first represented a moderate Republic, the second a revolutionary one that people called Marianne. Little by little the Republic settled, and the busts multiplied in town halls and schools. A model was more or less imposed; it was a bust of woman with a young, calm face, carrying the ear tiara sometimes or, more generally, a Phrygian cap. It was not until 1897-98 that the Third Republic restored the symbol of the Phrygian cap on its currencies.

Comparison between two effigies: Marianne on a French coin (left) and Mithradates I, emperor of the Iranian Parthian dynasty (c. 171-138 BC). The similarities between the caps are striking.

Where was Phrygia?

Phrygia was a kingdom located at the center of Asia Minor on the Anatolian plateau, west of Cappadocia and separated from the Aegean Sea byLydia. It is thought that the Phrygians were an Indo-European people originating from Thrace who, about 1200 B.C., invaded the Hittite empire to settle there. Its capital was Gordium, not far from current Ankara (in Turkey), and the famous town of Troy formed part of it, but the limits of its territory varied with time. Their kings were sometimes called Gordias, sometimes Midas. One of the Midas, who reigned between 725 and 676 B.C., was the subject of legends among Greeks, because of his wealth. The kingdom was devastated circa 695 B.C. by the invasion of Cimmerians, Indo-European nomads coming from the Balkans. The Phrygian state never recovered and gradually passed under the domination of neighboring Lydia.

Lydia lied west of Phrygia, between it, Mysia, Caria, and the Aegean Sea; it had Sardes as capital. Under the dynasty of Mermnads (687-546 B.C.), Lydia thrived and was the most powerful kingdom of the Anatolian peninsula. Famous for its riches (coming from gold mines and especially the river Pactolus) and for its offerings to the Greek sanctuaries, the Lydian kingdom was the first State to practise coining. Its last king, Croesus, annexed all the Greek cities of the coast of Asia Minor by force. After a reign of about eleven years, Croesus was confronted with threatening Persians, who had just conquered the neighboring Media. Becoming allies with Babylonia, Egypt, and Sparta, Croesus invaded the Persian province of Cappadocia. The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, defeated the Lydian army in 546 B.C. and entered Sardes. He treated Croesus with respect, and he finished his days quietly in Ecbatana, Iran, as one of Cyrus’s advisers. After Persians conquered the Greek cities of Ionia, most Asia Minor, including Phrygia, was placed under their control and was divided into several satrapies. That situation lasted more than two centuries, until the defeat of Persians by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. Western Phrygia, which initially belonged to the Seleucid kingdom, was annexed by Pergamon in the second century B.C. Eastern Phrygia, between Sangarios and Halys, was occupied by Celtic invaders, the Galates, about 275 B.C. Western Phrygia was annexed to the Roman province of Asia at the end of the second century. B.C. In the fouth century A.D., Phrygia was divided into two provinces: Phrygia Salutaris in the East (Capital: Synnada), and Phrygia Pacatia in the West (Capital: Laodikeia).

During the centuries when Asia Minor belonged to the Persian Empire, Iranian people settled in this area. Even after the conquest of Alexander, generations of Iranians lived in those regions, as attested by several clues, in particular Greek accounts, tombstone inscriptions, and coins. Even non-Iranians of Asia Minor bore Persian names (in particular Mithradates and others derived from Mithra). The royal road which connected the capitals of the empire, Persepolis and Susa, to Sardes being, according to historians, safe and practical, facilitated the installation of Persians in the fertile areas of Asia Minor. According to Xenophon, before building the royal road of 2750 km between Susa and Sardes, Cyrus the Great ordered experiments on the endurance of the horses in order to establish a rapid system of relay which did not exhaust the horses. This first system of express mail in the world made it possible to connect the two ends of the empire in seven days and seven nights while crossing 111 stations with a mean velocity of 15.3 km/h (Minetti 2003). And several pieces of evidence suggest that the Persian aristocracy brought the necessary qualified manpower for agriculture from Iran. Indeed in the fourth century A.D. many villages in Cappadocia were inhabited by Iranian descendants of the first colons. In fact many of them were former soldiers to whom lands had been granted; they had the obligation to join the army should a call occur (Boyce 1997). Moreover, the Cappadocian Solar calendar, which was used during centuries until 400 A.D., was an imitation of the Iranian Zoroastrian calendar.

The historian Bardesanes, who lived in the second and third centuries A.D., testifies to the fact that in his days there were still many Iranians living in Egypt, Phrygia, and Galatia who preserved their traditions. As in the metropolis, priests were in charge of the religious issues of the diaspora. There is also a lot of information on the Zoroastrian sanctuaries of Asia Minor, the oldest having been set up by Cyrus the Great himself or his generals in Pontic Cappadocia in the 6th century B.C. In the colonies, the religious function was carried out above all by the Magi, who had an important position in the society, but did not belong to the upper classes. In fact the Magi were not orthodox disciples of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) and had preserved many elements of their old beliefs, in particular the worship of Mithra. They had even succeeded in seizing power by coup after the death of Cyrus the Great, only later to be sacked by Darius I. After the fall of the Persian Empire and the disappearance of the leading elite, the Magi gained power, especially in Asia Minor. However, from the third century A.D. onward, the temples were removed by the Christian decree. Nevertheless, even in the 6th century A.D., the Persian emperor Khosrow I Anushirvan negotiated with the Byzantine emperor the rebuilding of fire temples in Cappadocia, and this very fact suggests that, even at that time, they remained followers of the Persian religion.

The term “Phrygian cap” can be attributed to Greeks who also called it “Eastern bonnet”. Thus this cap was not unique to Phrygians. It was worn by a great number of Iranian tribes, as well those of Cappadocia in the west and the Scythians (Sakas) of the Central Asia. This is corroborated by the representations of this bonnet and its variants on the bas-reliefs of Persepolis. In addition, according to Chinese accounts, a Zoroastrian merchant of Samarkand, who travelled in China in the 8th century A.D., wore the typical Sogdian dress, including a Phrygian cap (Whifield 1999).

Who Was Mithra?

Mithra, name coming from the Avestan language and the Old Persian, was the most important solar divinity of the Indo-Iranian people. In Sanskrit it is Mitra, and has been transformed in Modern Persian into Mehr, which means Sun, love, friendship and oath. The religious reform of Zarathushtra in Iran (in about1500 B.C.) relegated Mithra to the row of angels. Zarathushtra established Ahura Mazda, supreme intelligence, as the single god. However, the popularity of Mithra increased during the fourth century. B.C., and once again he occupied a privileged rank in the Persian Pantheon. Mithra thus reappeared in the epigraphy of the Persian kings beginning with Artaxerxes II (405-359 B.C.), as a god of the warriors and, at the same time, a god of divine justice. The Greek soldiers during their expeditions to Iran came to know the religion of Mithra. In spite of the collapse of the Persian Empire after the invasion by Alexander in 336 B.C., Mithra kept many followers in Asia Minor and especially in Armenia. Thereafter the Parthian dynasty of Iran (247 B.C. to 226 A.D.) venerated the religion and sometimes included Mithra in the name of its kings, like Mithradates I the Great, the name meaning “given by Mithra”.

The Greeks of Asia Minor identified Mithra with Helios, their Sun god, thus contributing to the spread of his worship. Mithra acquired new attributes and gradually became the subject of worship with mysteries. The first congregation was created in Rome around 68 B.C., by adulating soldiers of Mithra, under the direction of the General Pompeus. Roman colonies, many in Asia Minor, constituted links between Persia and the Mediterranean, and allowed the propagation of Mithraism in the Roman Empire. All the more so, since the legions sent by Rome to the border areas could remain years in permanent contact with Persians and since those areas were exchanged between Persians and Romans. Mithra made his entry in the Latin literature around 80 A.D. with the poet Statius who wrote: “That you prefer to carry, the vermilion name of Titan, according to the tradition of the Achaemenid people, or of frugiferous Osiris, or Mithra who under the rocks of the Persian cave twists the bull’s struggling horns.”Indeed, if Mithraism attracted slaves and free men, the fact that it insisted on concepts such as truth, honor, courage, and fraternity, and that it required discipline, turned Mithra into the god of soldiers and tradesmen. To him were dedicated temples and places of pilgrimage throughout the Empire. Mithra’s worship was spread all over the Roman Empire, from Spain to the Black Sea, while mounting towards Scotland in the north and going down to the Sahara. Many vestiges of this worship have been found in the United Kingdom, Italy, Romania, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Israel, Switzerland (Martigny), and in France (Bordeaux, Bourg Saint Andéol in Ardèche, in Alsace, Metz, and elsewhere). Even in Rome a series of temples were widespread in the entire city, but they were later destroyed by Christians. Their number amounts to about forty in today’s Rome, while at the time there were probably three times more of them. According to Ernest Renan (1823-1892) “If ever Christianity had become smitten by a fatal disease, Mithraism might have become the established religion of the whole world.”

The Romans named Mithra Deus Sol invictus “unconquered sun”. The Roman emperor Commodus (161-192 A.D.) himself was initiated to the worship of Mithra, and under the reign of Aurelius (270-275 A.D.) Mithraism was proclaimed the official religion of the Empire and the emperor the terrestrial incarnation of the Sun. It was Aurelius who in 274 A.D. posited the date of December 25th as the birthday of the solar divinity (natalis solis invicti). However, when Constantinus I (about 274-337 A.D.) converted to Christianity in 312 A.D., Mithraism lost its influence and, after a short revival under Julian the Apostate (331-363 A.D.), this religion disappeared. This philosopher and poet, who had embraced Mithraism, tried to restore the sun-worship. But ironically, he was killed in 363 A.D. occurring in combat in Mesopotamia against Persians.

Christmas, the birth of Mithra

Despite its disappearance, Mithraism amply inspired Christianity, in particular with regard to Christmas. The most important festival in the religion of Mithra was celebrated at the winter solstice, considered as Mithra’s birthday and the victory of light over darkness. Indeed, the days lengthen more and more from the winter solstice onward when the Sun moves towards the North. However the choice of December 25 by Romans for the winter solstice is due to a mistake made when reforming the Roman calendar. In fact, in 46 B.C. Julius Caesar established a new calendar devised by the astronomer Sosigenes. This calendar, known as Julian, fixed the beginning of the seasons: spring on March 25, summer on June 24, autumn on September 24, and winter on December 25. But these dates were in delay of one or two days with respect to reality.

Surprisingly enough, the first Christians did not celebrate December 25 and were unaware of Christ’s birthday. Saint Mark’s Gospel, considered as the oldest, does not speak about the life of Christ, and the only two Gospels which evoke his birth, those of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, never give a date for the Nativity. In any case, according to Saint Luke, at the time of Christ’s birth “there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock” (Luke 2:8). However, in Palestine the month of December is generally rainy and the weather cold; therefore shepherds do not leave their flock in pasture at this period of the year. The first mention of the Christmas celebration goes back to the second century A.D., to Clement of Alexandria who, evoking the followers of the theologian Basilides, informs us that they celebrated Christ’s baptism on January 6 or 10. However, from the first half of the 4th century A.D. Christ’s baptism and birth are both celebrated as Epiphany. A papyrus dating from the 4th century, discovered in Egypt, contains the oldest liturgy of Christmas, celebrated then in the night of 5 to 6 January. In brief, fixing December 25 for Christ’s birthday was decided by the Pope Jules I in 340. However, this choice seems to be eminently tactical.

Mithraism contained many elements which drew their origin from centuries and sometimes even millennia of Indo-European culture, contrary to the young religion of Christ coming from Palestine. Therefore, the first Roman Christians, while giving up Mithra’s religion, remained quite attached to it for still a long time. And this fact explains the presence of many Mithraic rites in Christianity. For example, in Mithraism the holiday was Sunday, the day of the Sun (in German Sonntag, in French dimanche, from Latin dies dominicus, Lord’s Day). Similarly, bread and wine were consecrated at the Eucharist. Mithra was depicted as being born from a rock within a cave with attending shepherds. Moreover, the Christian baptism and the use of music, bells, and holy water as well come from Mithraic ceremonies. As for the clergy, they borrowed the title of “father” from priests of Mithra, in spite of Christ’s formal prohibition: “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Thus it is not astonishing that mitre, meaning a bishop’s cap, calls Mithra to mind, and that the Pope’s headdress tiara (a word of Persian origin) derives from frigium, referring to the Phrygian cap.

The pagan and Christian customs in Rome coexisted and intermingled still peacefully until the 4th century. It was at that time that the celebration of Christmas made its appearance and that December 25 was chosen as the birthday of Christ. During a long period the Church took into account the pagan rites to convert people. Paganism did not disappear at once, because pagans, especially the aristocracy, resisted. In fact, the Church, while maintaining pagan habits, changed their name in order to impose the Christian dogma more effectively. However, when Christianity acceded to power and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism was not tolerated any more. Even followers of Mithra were accused of satanic falsification of the holiest of Christian rites. In brief, the Christian calendar was established in the 6th century, more precisely in 525, by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who fixed Christ’s birthday as well as the origin of the Christian calendar. But he made a mistake of a few years!

Mithra did not disappear from his native land, Iran. During the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties (3rd century B.C. to 7th century A.D.), he had a dominant rank even in the Zoroastrian religion. One can see him on the bas-reliefs carved in the Iranian mountain rocks supervising the ceremonial conferring of the authority to Sassanid kings by Anahita, the goddess of water, purity, and fecundity. After the Islamic invasion in the 7th century, Mithra seems to have constituted one of the elements of the Iranian resistance movements, and traces of the red cap can be found until the 15th century. Mithra was also a source of inspiration for mystics and especially for great poets, for example Hafez of Chiraz (14th century). Today, Iranians have not forgotten Mithra: each year they celebrate his birth on December 21, the winter solstice, which they call “night of Yalda” (Yule for Scandinavians!). Moreover, the seventh month of the Iranian solar calendar is devoted to Mithra and bears the name of “Mehr” (Modern Persian transformation of Mithra), just like the great festival of Mehregan, which marks the beginning of autumn as well as that of the month of Mehr. These festivals are regaining all their importance these years, with the return of Iranians to their old cultural values.

The history of the Phrygian cap is such a fabulous epic. It crossed the ages and remained common to both gods and men, witnessing so many decisive events in the history of humanity.


~M. Heydari-Malayeri


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