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Good Saint Mithras

Leo looked frustrated. The Michelin guide to London was open in the middle, to the section on the Financial District. He had his finger on the entry for the Temple of Mithras. Two stars. "Splendid third-century temple to the Roman military guard, thought to be the oldest surviving temple in Greater London. Al though it is largely in ruin, the visitor can still make out the ancient layout. Leo handed me the book. I read the description to verify. I handed back the green paperback. He took out a red pen, drew a large red X over the description and wrote, "Temple of Mithras. A pile of rocks. Avoid at all costs."

We left the scene and headed for the Tube. The escalators were immense, and this station was at least two hundred feet underground. The posters along the side of the moving staircase advertised Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyceum. Each of the hundreds of identical posters featured a young Christ being escorted by a pair of bobbies, with a rather mean looking East Indian in the background, presumably Judas. Then, near the bottom, there were some more interesting lingerie-style posters for Chicago. It was back to Camberwell for some Johnny Walker Black Label and some Scrabble, then off to Brixton for some clubbing. The rickety subway cars rattled through the tunnels below. I was, as always, licking the sticky residue of a Cadbury Caramel off my fingers.

Two days later, on an abysmal overcast day, we found ourselves in the British Museum, poring over the late Roman artifacts. There he was, Mithras, in all his glory, frozen in stone. He was young and tucked some of his long blonde hair into his Phrygian Smurf cap. The statue portrayed him slaying a bull. He sitting on its back, thrusting a large sword into the back of the beast's neck. I was admiring the quality of the workmanship when I noticed that a scorpion had the bull by the... well, they have motifs like that to add support to animals. Marble is not so strong that animals can be made to stand on four spindly legs; five are better. At any rate, it was a good rationalization.

After four hours, in which we saw fifteenth-century guns beautifully engraved with pornographic motifs, the Sutton Hoo relics, an entire temple from Babylonia, and a splinter of the True Cross, it was time to break for lunch. Leo suggested Belgo Centraal, a swank mussel establishment in Covent Garden. Its interior, nestled in the basement of a swank office building, was a eclectic mix of stainless steel, cement, and wooden benches. The waiter, replete in Franciscan cassock, took our order. He pretended to speak only French, but he spoke it badly. We knew he was really an escaped Italian.

We slogged back to the Museum, a kilo bucket of mussels proven,cal in each of us. Leo drew forth a slender volume on ancient religion from the pocket of his raincoat. He began to read, "Mithraism. Third-century military cult. The worship of Mithras, of Persian origin, became popular in the Roman world in the second and third centuries C.E. Mithras was reputedly born in a cave to a virgin and became a mighty general. Due to the deceit of one of his twelve military chiefs, he was mortally wounded in a great battle. He did, however, save his eleven loyal subjects. Adherents of this cult, largely Roman soldiers, were gradually assimilated into Christianity after the Edict of Milan (313 CE). Mithras is most often pictured as a beardless youth riding or slaying a bull. A Phrygian cap usually adorns his hair." For the next six blocks Leo and I took turns making sure that we "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT," as the painted warnings below the curbs warned as the other read.

The museum was nearly empty as we surveyed more Mithriana. There were blunt-tipped swords, stone statues, diptychs and triptychs related to this divinity. The wheels were turning. We left the museum and discussed this on the way to the Underground. I pumped another 35p into the candy machine. A newer subway train stopped. We got on, without knowing where it was headed, hopefully for Victoria Station. Wrong. We switched trains at Blackfriars. Leo was passed out on the seat, his head on the rail. The British books in the "Dummy" series were so much more interesting than ours: Mercantilism for Dummies; TeaAuctioning for Dummies. I held out for a few seconds longer, thumbing through my new literary acquisition, White Slavery for Dummies. The last thing I heard was a faint "This is the Oriental line to Saint Mithrasgate, with stops at Hanging Gardens, New Sodom, Baalbeck Park, and the Ishtar Portal." Then came the Cadbury-induced dream in which it was all revealed to me.

Mithras was not a Persian and then a Roman divinity. As elucidated in the Von Wienerschmacher codex, he was in fact the son of Mary Magdalene, a Belgian, and a Parthian spice merchant out on a business trip. When his itinerant father left Northern Europe, Mithras.,and his twin brother Judas Iscariot decided to move to greener pastures. Following the path of their father through Phrygia (where Mithras developed his distinctive taste in headgear) to Judaea, they made many stops and made many more enemies. As they approached the gates to Jerusalem, they flipped a cisterces to make a crucial decision. They wanted to be as far as possible from one another. One would convert to Judaism. The other would enlist in the Roman army. Mithras lost, and he promptly reported to Pontius Pilate for induction. Judas, on the other had, fell in with a group of roughneck fishermen following a radical rabbi named Jesus. The future Saint Mithras, for his part, made a lousy soldier. When Jesus and his followers stormed into the Temple, where Mithras was assigned as a guard, the poor Belgian was in deep water. He attempted to bring his sword down on Jesus's head as the latter was flipping a table of erotic cartes de viste. Unfortunately, the sword carried by Mithras was made of very poor metal, with too many carbon inclusions. The tip broke off on the Messiah's head, creating the blunt sword that would forever more be his insignia. In the process of its fracture, Mithras's sword was converted into pure uranium. Mithras tried to escape, but the heavy weapon he carried slowed him down. His superior officer was, of course, waiting for him in the precincts of the temple. As a result of his gross incompetence, Mithras was demoted to crucifixion duty, the lowest form of guard duty.

One day, when Mithras was wandering the streets in his spare time, he ran into his twin brother Judas. After the customary exchange of insults, Judas asked Mithras for a favor. There was to be a special Passover celebration, but Judas could not make the planning meeting. Mithras agreed to go as a substitute, on the condition that Judas buy him some wine. The latter, finding the cheapest Samaritan variety available, made a gift of it to his brother.

When the Last Supper did roll around, Judas knew nothing of the prophecies surrounding the hummous. When Jesus mentioned something about it to Peter and John, Judas did not understand. Overcome with hunger, the Belgian put his pita in the bowl without paying much attention. He was reprimanded by Jesus, much to his surprise. While the apostles were napping at the Garden of Gethsemane, Mithras made a full report to his superiors as to the whereabouts of the impending prayer breakfast. When he and the cohort showed up in the garden, Judas rushed to protect Jesus, who then scolded him for betraying him with a kiss. This came as another unpleasant shock for Judas, who had no idea how the Romans had come to find th,em. Confusing the brothers, the head of the Roman patrol gave Judas the reward money destined for Mithras. Then Peter rushed up with his sword and attacked Mithras, cutting off his ear. Jesus reattached it. Judas, horrified at his bad luck, ran away, threw the reward money into the Temple and hung himself. Mithras, not knowing this, went out for a spot of vinum at a nearby hosteria.

During Jesus's second trial, this time before Pilate, Mithras found himself in charge of crowd control. Pilate, an impeccably dressed narcissist, sauntered into view. He repeatedly asked what the problem with the man was. And he dismissed it every time he heard an answer. "Not a crime. Ta tat Try again." Mithras suggested to the crowd that they yell, "this man claimed to be King of the Jews and wants a rebellion against Caesar." That idea caught their fancy, and they began chanting that. Finally tiring of this shouting, Pilate asked what they should do with him. Acceptable answers would have been flogging, the stocks, exile, or prison. There was nothing but silence. Mithras started to feel uncomfortable. Finally, he shouted, "Crucify him!" The crowd, seeing Mithras as a natural leader, chimed in. Pilate hiked up his laurel wreath and adjusted his toga pin. He reminded the crowd of Roman clemency. When he asked who should be released, there was more silence. Mithras, faster on his feet than ever, remembered someone who owed him one hundred solid). "We want Barabbas," he volunteered. And that is why insurrectionist was released.

While Jesus was being prepared for crucifixion, Mithras spotted an opportunity to score some casual clothes. So did the other solidiers. Mithras was too weak to tear the garment apart, and it was he who suggested that they roll dice for it. And when his patrol leader told him to go get some rope, Mithras spent the money a snack-sized couscous. With the change, he bought some rafter nails. Bringing them back to Golgotha, he explained to his superior that there was no more rope available. This explained why Christ was crucified with nails, not rope.

As Jesus was dying, Mithras cracked open the bottle of wine that Judas had given him. He put some of it on a sponge and offered it to the prisoner. Jesus refused, tasting the poor quality. Mithras withdrew the sponge and drank the rest of the bottle of wine, which had been inadvertently blessed. On his way down from the hill, he fell seven times. Finally, he ended up face down in the dust, grinning and silly in his Phrygian cap. Then lightning struck. Mithras dropped his sword and ran from the scene.

Three days later, Mithras assist~d the angels in rolling back the stone from the tomb, thinking that there woutd be something inside to steal. When Jesus walked out, Mithras fled. Jesus picked up Mithras's sword on the way out of Jerusalem and used it as a walking stick.

Mithras spent the rest of his life as a vagrant, bringing misfortune on himself and those around him. In a little-known Church Council in 563 at Antioch, he was declared a saint by Pope Negligent 11 and a council of proxy bishops. This was the product of his having assisted with the mission of the Messiah. Saint Mithras was canonized according to the proposition evil men are necessary for God's will to be achieved. His devotees quickly adopted the starfish, an adaptable animal with regenerrative capability, as his emblem. Mithras became the patron saint of deserters, syncretists, and traitors. His followers over the years uttered prayers like

Oh, ye Saint Mithras You who were found naked,

Bleeding from every part, and

Without your sword at the battle of Massada

Intervene so that we may make a hasty and

Orderly retreat from battle in such a way that

We do not make excessively cowardly noises

Or soil ourselves. Amen.

In eleventh century, when the Eastern Church formerly walked out of the system, there came the touchy matter of apportioning the miscellaneous saints. Not well known or particularly well-liked in the West, Mithras was traded to the Eastern Church, along with some venison cutlets, for a few nice silk papal robes. In 1098 the Patriarch of Constantinople decided that the cult of Saint Mithras, along with its extravagant dipsomania, was too expensive to maintain, and as a practical matter he declared the Parthian devotion to be a heretical Roman usage.

The worship of Saint Mithras did not end there. Afficionados of the holy man were many, and all of them met terrible ends. One was an organizer of what became the Children's Crusade. Another was Napoleon's field commander at Waterloo. And the last of these repeatedly advised the German army to invade Russia during the Second World War. It is rumored that the sword of Mithras found its way to New Mexico, where it was made part of the first atomic bomb. And so the might sword of Mithras did strike again in our century.

Suddenly, the hagiographic daydream came to an end. The train was finally pulling out of Blackfriars. From the window of the train I could see the gloomy skyline, the Thames, and in the distance the ugly high-rises of the Docklands. And there was still the residue of British Caramello on my fingers.