Geneva Diaries #24

Strasbourg and The Cult of Mithras, The Matterhorn


Dear Roger,

Its well past midnight but I cant go to bed, I feel I must tell you about my adventures in Strasbourg before I lose them to the day. Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region in North East France on the border with Germany was established as a Celtic town in the 3rd century BC. It has since exchanged hands between France and Germany many times through its history. A city, very much like Geneva and New York, though not a capital city but just as important, being the base for large international organizations and in this instance the seat for large European ones. Strasbourg, with its historic center, this Grand Island, surrounded by the river Ill, charming buildings, grand structures and fascinating facades has been classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO and is a “must see”!

Strasbourg courtyard with friends and family:

I was first introduced to this region by a close friend in California who had embarked on a journey to document her roots through the moving story of the dynamic and determined Poumy, her grand aunt, who secured and saved her family as she worked silently for the French resistance. This first attempt at film making was well received and a glimpse of the the region for curious eyes like mine who wanted to see the film, the scenery and the story through the eyes of an American journeying through time back to her roots. I have pasted a clip from her movie “Poumy” for you below , do check it out:

Poumy (on youtube)

My first stop during the tour of the historic city center was the grand Roman Catholic cathedral of Strasbourg (Notre Dame) one of the finest examples of gothic architecture, with its intricate carvings and dramatic spires touching the sky, visible from across great distances tall and imposing (see pic). Then I learned a very interesting fact, that in 1794, the Enrages who were in control of the area planned to tear down these dramatic spires based on the notion that it hurt the principle of equality! The smart citizens apparently gathered together and covered the spire with a Phrygian cap thereby saving the spire.

Phrygian cap:

 The story behind the Phrygian cap, forever the symbol of freedom and liberty has intrigued me for a while encouraging me to put on the Indiana Jones hat and take you back with me on a journey to San Jose California, I promise you an adventure for there is a brilliant Egyptian museum in these remote recesses of the universe. The museum has a theatre and in this theatre they screen many fascinating films. I assure you that with my budding egyptologist all of 5years old, I was dragged southwards to San Jose to the point where i was reading the Rosetta stone in my dreams. It was here in the midst of the mummies and the deep dark crypt that I was introduced to the cult of Mithras and the Mithraeum. Yes, a  never ending film which we saw forever. The cult of Mithras, a Roman pagan cult that was popular during the early part of the first millennium across Europe was subsequently subjugated/eradicated. This was a mystery cult worshipped in deep dark caves where the central figure of the carving was shown slaying a bull, there were symbols of a dog, snake, sun and moon gods, raven all possibly astronomical symbols depicting the skies (perhaps the knowledge of which would be very important for farmers and those dependent upon agriculture). The central figure slaying the bull is often depicted wearing this Phrygian cap, perhaps a symbol of their freedom to practice their cult/belief, an expression of their liberty to practice any faith/religion (and as you know liberty is my favorite topic).

Check this out at the Louvre: Mithras Slaying the Bull

 This of course brought me to Strasbourg where I was meant to find the grand Mithraeum with its majestic reliefs embedded in the subterranean caverns awaiting my arrival and introduction to the world. This was also of special interest to me since Mitras is a prominent Vedic deity featured in the Rig Veda with its counterpart in the Persian pantheon, and of course the name of my grand uncle (a part of my French connection). Unfortunately, even though I got to the dark basement of the museum that promised to house its relics, I could not get to my final destination, which sounds like a return trip to Strasbourg, perhaps you would like to accompany me?

Then of course there was the much awaited meeting with my childhood friend Cecile de Volages, one with whom I have shared my oldest and fondest memories, and whose life has paralleled mine as we have traipsed across the world with bubble baths, babies, bags and 6ft tall baggages. One with whom I treasured sharing my fears and sorrows, stories and journeys, secrets and mail. As I sat across her in the charming 16th century courtyard (see pic) pouring my heart out, I momentarily slipped out of my shell and watched us both bend over the table so that our whispers might contain and not float over the ledge to eager ears, two birds of Asia having journeyed far from their watering hole, getting together in this remote region far from home, sharing stories, making stories, and translating your stories in our accents. I wish you were these to see how Gutenberg’s incredible invention of the printing press here in Strasbourg was translating your epics in the exotic tongues of the East, Persian and Sanskrit (see pic)!

The journey back to Geneva was altogether another story/nightmare. The misty memories of childhood evaporated and I was faced with practical mom and my pragmatic childhood buddy, who after being introduced to my adventures in Geneva said, “time for a reality check…wake up and smell the coffee, you are a train wreck”! No, not a sympathetic ear, not a tear, just horror at hearing about the bulging eyes, darting glances, villainous vermin…

Cecile reiterated for the nth time that “It’s just an Illusion” check it out on youtube:

Hope to hear from you soon.

Good night!



Dear Roger

Just spent the night at the recommended hotel and it was perfect, room, views, location and the breakfast was ok but the cherry on the topping was the old 1980s Euro-pop that brought back memories of fun dance parties and friends left behind.

I almost shed a tear when I hear “Gloria” whose name should now be replaced with “Purnima”!


(hear me sing this today, 20 years later)

Check out this video on YouTube:

Onto Zermatt.



Dear Roger

The train ride from Visp to Zermatt was enchanting, the vistas of quaint wooden homes with stone slabbed rooftops tinted with moss and embedded in the hillsides appeared almost alive, breathing, armored to face the next onslaught from the heavens/ hillsides. They certainly take the “sky is falling on our heads” seriously, i sensed in my bones that we couldn’t be far from Asterix and his charming hamlet. I was convinced that if I went knocking I would encounter all my fairytale characters complete with gnomes, gremlins, Getafix and the occasional Prince Charming.

At the end of this spectacular train ride we encountered the Snoring Giant lying prostrate with his gigantic protrusion, which has captivated and mesmerized millions across the globe, is embedded in California culture and wedded to the Yeti ( you could not convince a youngster from California that the Yeti is really associated with the “other” mountain range), yes, we are back to “the nose”. Don’t you see it, The Matterhorn as a large “buumpii” nose?!?

The Matterhorn:

We did take the Glacier Express enjoying seven hours of breathtaking scenery that left us gasping at every bend. 

I stopped clicking after a while and tried to inhale it all, hoping it would stay within me, enmeshed with me, as I continued on my endless journey. We reached St. Moritz by early evening and after giving my mother an hours break, i dragged her to see the lake ( i could almost read her thoughts that she would NEVER leave planning the itinerary to me), by this time we had all OD’ed on the spectacular. As I looked around, I found the brilliantly hued and multi textured wildflowers, and sighed that if I were to be reborn, how I would wish to be a wildflower on this hill with a view, my mother gasped, who unlike her heretical daughter, actually believes in rebirth and drew the line at my fantasies with a firm NO!



Dear Purnima,

Ah, your email made me so nostalgic for Zermatt and Le Cervin.  It took me

back to my first stay in Switzerland and a day-trip to Zermatt.  I had so

been looking forward to seeing that majestic Snoring Giant, as you call it,

but luck wasn’t with me that day.  It was a fairly sunny day, but there were

enough clouds in the sky that it made it impossible to get a clear view of

Le Cervin the entire time we were there.  We rode the cog train up to

Gornegrat, where we had a wonderful, unobstructed view of every mountain

surrounding Zermatt, but not the Matterhorn.  It remained enshrouded the

entire afternoon, as though there were some kind of magnetic field enticing

the clouds to cling to its summit.  I, however, didn’t have thoughts of

gremlins and Yeti (it was prior to my moving to Oregon and the vicinity of

Mt. Shasta, which has a fairly rich culture of Yeti sightings), only the awe

brought about by staring up at those towering peaks and wondering what it

would be like to climb them, but then reading of the first ascent of Le

Cervin by the British climber Edward Whymper in 1865 and the tragedy that

befell his climbing party on the way back down reminded me of the pitfalls

of such adventures.  (I did climb Mt. Shasta twice while I lived in Oregon,

but now am perfectly satisfied to live vicariously through the exploits of


It must be a drastic change for you to be in flat, ordinary Strasbourg now

after all that alpine beauty, but the city does have its charms, especially

the old part around the cathedral with its fantastic clock.  The story our

guide told us during my first visit to the city was that the clock had been

in a state of disrepair for many years, and the city finally found someone

who was able to repair it and make it work again.  When he finished his

task, he was blinded by the city fathers so that he could not ever build a

rival clock for another city that might possibly put Strasbourg to shame.

I put Charlie on his Portland, Oregon bound plane (via Amsterdam) this

morning.  I enjoyed having him here, but it is also nice to return to a bit

of normalcy.

Do enjoy Strasbourg and your reunion with your old classmate. I hope it is

everything that you hoped it would be, but such encounters are often fraught

with pitfalls.

See you soon when you return to Geneva,


Disclaimer : P

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto.

Purnima Viswanathan 

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