Mithraic Aspects of Merlin in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave

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Author: Marilyn Jurich
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Timothy J. White
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,466 words

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[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Jurich explains Stewart's use of the ancient figure Mithras, from the Zoroastrian religion, in the creation of her Merlin.]

The figure of Merlin is a fascinating palimpsest of myth, legend, and history; this sage-magician-trickster prophet, wild man of the forest, and protector of kings has spanned fourteen centuries. He has performed his sleight of hand and necromancy in poems, novels, and plays, enchanting both children and adults in his many roles. Nowhere, however, except in Mary Stewart's fantasy The Crystal Cave has Merlin been cast as a Mithraic figure--as the force of light and truth, the messenger of Zoroastrian Ahura-Mazda, Mithras who came to Britain with the Romans and whose more ancient roots go back to Persia and India. In her brief note on historical sources that follows her novel, Mary Stewart says little of Mithraism, a religion whose practice in the Roman Empire can only be surmised from bas-reliefs, sculptures, and objects discovered in the grotto chapels or "caves" where Mithras was worshipped by Roman men, soldiers, and business men. Stewart's statement is cagey or better "cave-y": "Mithraism has been (literally) underground for years. I have postulated a local revival for the purpose of my story. . . ." She postulates that Merlin's father, Ambrosius, has Roman leanings and favors the worship of Mithra, the god most favored by Roman warriors during the first four centuries A.D. Yet if it be, as Stewart tells us, that King Arthur's birth occurred around 470 A.D., the practice of the Mithraic religion had already been prohibited in the Roman Empire some seventy years before. While historically Mithraism is perhaps somewhat anachronistic in the novel, artistically it forms a crucial layer of The Crystal Cave as Mithras illumines two alluring possibilities: Mithras may represent the god who guides Merlin, and he may also signify Merlin himself. After all, what god can be more appropriate for the mythic dimension of a fantasy about Merlin--Mithras, born in a cave, bringer of light?

To understand the subtleties of Mithra and Mithraism in relation to the novel, some religious background is valuable. Mithra, originating in the mythological Mitra in the fourteenth century B.C. Vedas of India, is the servant of the sky god, Varuna, whose great power is "binding". This quality the Persian god Mithras will inherit, to enforce the "binding" of contracts and, more generally, justice. in the Rig-Veda, Mitra is also considered one of the twelve Adityas, gods of the months of the year headed by Aditya, the Hindu sun goddess. Later, as Mithras, as the supreme God in the "Mazdean Pantheon," he is considered to be "boundless Time"; his statue may display the signs of the zodiac engraved on his body. In particular, Mitra is a deity of light in the Vedas, connected to fertilizing warmth, as well as to truth and to oath keeping. These qualities are suggested in etymology: Mithras derives from the Assyrian metru meaning "rain" and the Sanskrit metru meaning "friend". Thus, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100004762