CWA 118 Letters

Mysteries of Mithras

I don’t know why, but I have been fascinated by the worship of Mithras for a long time, perhaps because it was such a strongly male cult – particularly among the Roman army – and surrounded in mystery? The article in issue 115 is so interesting and so welcome. I just wish I could visit the Musée Saint-Raymond to see the exhibition for myself. I have been wondering why, by the 5th century, Mithraism had disappeared. Rather than the cult’s demise being the result of a lack of interest, could it have been that by the 5th century the Roman Empire and, with it, the Roman army were under increasing pressure and siege from so-called ‘barbarian hordes’? The army was doing its best to protect Rome’s frontiers, so there was no longer the time and opportunity to pursue its cults, like Mithraism?

It’s just a thought, as I sit here rereading the article and pondering the cult’s mysteries and demise.

Helen Davies
Godalming, UK

IMAGE: Jean-Baptiste Cyrille-Lytras, Musée Saint-Raymond

Spondylus shells

After reading ‘The Priest of Pututus’ article in CWA 117, regarding the significance of the Strombus shell, I was reminded of the importance of the Spondylus also to Peruvian societies, another shell commonly found to the north of Peru due to favouring warmer waters. If a Spondylus was found, it was immediately reported to the Inca rulers. I believe these shells were not necessarily traded but occurred naturally as the water heated up, as in an El Niño event, and were seen as harbingers of disaster.

Pat McDonnell
Crosshaven, Ireland

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons, Thirunavukkarasye-Raveendran

The Venus of Willendorf

Re: the Special Report, ‘Investigating the Venus of Willendorf’, in CWA 113. Although the investigators found the hemispherical pits to be ‘unexplained’, I wonder if they may have been points of attachment for another object(s), such as a child or baby?

Darryl Wally
North Carolina, USA

Medical marvels

With reference to the c.30,000-year-old ‘Early limb amputation in Borneo’ reported in CWA 116.

In 2008, my wife suffered a life-threatening post-orthopaedic surgery medical emergency: an infection that was tackled with large intravenous doses of a somewhat exotic antibiotic, a ‘drug of last resort’, known as vancomycin.

Vancomycin is produced naturally by the organism Amycolaptosis orientalis and was isolated by a ‘big pharma’ scientist in 1953, from a soil sample collected earlier in the century by a Christian missionary, that soil sample having been taken from the inner jungle of Borneo. Vancomycin has proven to be particularly efficacious in attacking bone infections.

It appears we are only just now catching up with our ancient forebears’ knowledge of pharmacognosy.

Graeme Innes-Johnstone
Elland, UK

200 years ago…

PHOTO: © Leighton Collins/

The ‘Red lady of Paviland’ was discovered at Goat’s Hole cave (also known as Paviland Cave) on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, UK. The famous Upper Palaeolithic burial was found by geologist William Buckland during his excavations of the cave in January 1823, although its true significance was not determined until later. The skeleton had been covered in red ochre and was buried with jewellery made of shells and ivory, leading Buckland to conclude that the individual was a Roman-era female, perhaps a prostitute or a witch. However, later excavations in the cave and analysis of the skeleton revealed that Buckland was mistaken about both its sex and its date. Radiocarbon dating in 2008 confirmed that the bones actually belonged to a young male who died c.33,000-34,000 years ago – probably one of the hunters who periodically occupied the cave during the last Ice Age – making the ‘Red Lady’ one of the earliest known examples of a ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

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