Dead Religion, Live Minds
Memory and Recall of the Mithraic Bull-Slaying Scene
Keywords:bull-slaying, cult icons, human memory, Mithras
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.
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