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Completing the Picture: Women and the Female Principle in the Mithraic Cult

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In the recently revived debate on the possible involvement of women in the Mithraic cult the main points of contention are the value and reliability of limited archaeological and epigraphic evidence and of two passing references to women's involvement in works by Porphyry and Tertullian. At one end of the spectrum, Richard Gordon proposed an alternate "Mithraic" world that not only excluded women but also subverted the female principle entirely. At the other end, Jonathan David challenged the claim that women were excluded from the Mithraic cult and proposed the possibility of lea and mater grades. The first part of this paper tackles the vexed issue of "evidence" by conducting a more thorough and stringent review of the physical evidence than that offered by David on this subject. The conclusion that none of this evidence is unequivocally Mithraic is hardly new; the aim is to put the debate to rest. The second part of this paper explores Porphyry's distinct but ambiguous reference to women as "hyenas" in the context of the Mithraic cult. In this section Gordon's theory of an alternate Mithraic reality is modified in order to reconcile numerous female sex and gender associations apparent in the iconography of the tauroctony scene.


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