Dead Religion, Live Minds

Memory and Recall of the Mithraic Bull-Slaying Scene

Authors

  • Alison B. Griffith University of Canterbury, Christ Church

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.v1i1.72

Keywords:

bull-slaying, cult icons, human memory, Mithras

Abstract

An experiment was conducted using undergraduate Classical Studies majors and a painted replica of the richly detailed bull-slaying icon of the Roman Mysteries of Mithras, which flourished during the 1st-4th centuries CE. There are numerous interpretations about the meaning of this iconographic scene, but scholars agree that the icon was important for communicating the tenets of the cult to its members. The experiment tested what level of explanation best facilitated long-term recall of the details and the meaning of the icon. Three groups of subjects received either 1) a narrative explanation of its constituent parts and a description that related these to constellations (a familiar concept), or 2) only a narrative explanation of the constituent parts, or 3) no explanation at all. The results show that the longer explanation supports better recall of the meaning of the icon, but that little or no explanation supports better recall of the individual details.

Author Biography

Alison B. Griffith, University of Canterbury, Christ Church

Alison B. Griffith is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her main areas of expertise are the Roman cult of Mithras, Roman religion and the topography of ancient Rome.

References

Aginsky, V., and M. J. Tarr. 2000. “How are Different Properties of a Scene Encoded in Visual Memory?” Visual Cognition 7: 147–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/135062800394739

Barrett, J. L., and M. A. Nyhof. 2001. “Spreading Non-natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 1(1): 69–100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156853701300063589

Bartlett, J. C., R. E. Till and J. C. Levy. 1980. “Retrieval Characteristics of Complex Pictures: Effects of Verbal Encoding”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 19: 430–49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(80)90303-5

Beck, R. 2004. “Four Men, Two Sticks, and a Whip: Image and Doctrine in a Mithraic Ritual”. In Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition, ed. H. Whitehouse and L. Martin. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 87–103.

Beck, R. 2006. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bransford, J. D., and M. K. Johnson. 1972. “Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding: Some Investigations of Comprehension and Recall”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 717–26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(72)80006-9

Castelhano, M. S., and J. M. Henderson. 2005. “Incidental Visual Memory for Objects in Scenes”. Visual Cognition 12(6): 1017–40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13506280444000634

Gonce, L. O., M. A. Upal, D. J. Slone and R. D. Tweney. 2006. “Role of Context in the Recall of Counterintuitive Concepts”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6(3-4:): 521–47.

Goodman, G. S. 1980. “Picture Memory: How the Action Schema Affects Retention”. Cognitive Psychology 12: 473–95. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(80)90017-1

Griffith, A. B. 2010. “Miracles, Memory and Meaning: A Cognitive Approach to Roman Myths”. In Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. P. Pachis and D. Wiebe. Thessaloniki: Barbounakis, 135–50.

Henrich, J., S. Heine and A. Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” with Open Peer Commentary. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2-3): 61–135. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Mandler, J. M., and G. H. Ritchey. 1977. “Long-Term Memory for Pictures”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 3(4): 386–96. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.3.4.386

Mandler, J. M., and N. S. Johnson. 1976. “Some of the Thousand Words a Picture is Worth”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 2(5): 529–40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.2.5.529

Mandler, J. M., and R. E. Parker. 1976. “Memory for Descriptive and Spatial Information in Complex Pictures”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 2(1): 38–48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.2.1.38

Martin, L., “Performativity, Discourse and Cognition: ‘Demythologizing’ the Roman Cult of Mithras”. In Rhetoric and Reality in Early Christianity, ed. W. Braun. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2005, 187–217.

Martin, L., and P. Pachis (eds). 2009. Imagistic Traditions in the Graeco-Roman World: A Cognitive Modeling of History of Religious Research. Thessaloniki: Vanias.

Pachis, P., and D. Wiebe (eds). 2010. Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences. Thessaloniki: Barbounakis.

Schooler, J. W., and T. Y. Engstler-Schooler. 1990. “Verbal Overshadowing of Visual Memories: Some Things are Better Left Unsaid”. Cognitive Psychology 22: 36–71. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(90)90003-M

Shantz, C. 2009. Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle’s Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511581625

Slone, D. J., L. O. Gonce, M. A. Upal, K. Edwards and R. D. Tweney. 2007. “Image Effects on Recall of Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7: 355–67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156853707X208558

Whitehouse, H. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Whitehouse, H., and L. Martin (eds). 2004. Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Wolfe, J. M., T. S. Horowitz and K. O. Michod. 2007. “Is Visual Attention Required for Robust Picture Memory?” Vision Research 47: 955–64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2006.11.025

Wurm, L. H., G. E. Legge, L. M. Isenberg and A. Luebker. 1993. “Color Improves Object Recognition in Normal and Low Vision”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 19(4): 899–911. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-1523.19.4.899

Published

2014-01-23

How to Cite

Griffith, A. B. (2014). Dead Religion, Live Minds: Memory and Recall of the Mithraic Bull-Slaying Scene. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 1(1), 72–89. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.v1i1.72

Issue

Section

Articles