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3.3.1 Mithraism

Mithraism has changed quite a lot over time. The Persian people first knew Mithra as a god of Light, Truth, and Integrity. In the Indian Vedic, Mithra is allied with Varuna, the god of Heaven, and in the Avesta (Persian Zoroastraian writing) he is associated with Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord. According to this document he is the “Champion of Truth” of Ahura Mazda, the “Lord of Wide Pasture”, and he also fought against Ahriman, the God of Evil. The Magi also worshipped Mithra and spread his doctrine in the west. The cult of Mithra was very popular with men, and more specifically soldiers, in the Roman Empire from the second century AD. Mithra was described as the slayer of the Sacred Bull, a symbol of creation and life. In this period his followers worshipped in caves (Mithraea) where they participated in purification, initiatory rites, and ceremonial meals. Much of our knowledge of Mithraic mythology comes from the scenes depicted on archaeological monuments as the bas-relief from Heddernheim, Germany. In this case the front shows Mithra killing the bull. As he dies three heads of grain grow from his tail. Mithra has a Phrygian or Persian cap on his head and his coat is flying behind him. On the coat is perched a raven, a messenger of the sun and a Mithraic grade of initiation. On each sides of Mithra are torchbearers, symbolic of the coming and going of the sun. Above Mithra is a border with the twelve signs of the zodiac, and all around the periphery of the stones are mythological scenes of the life of Mithra: he is born from a rock (the sun is born on December 25, at the time of the winter solstice); he shoots an arrow at the rock (to open a spring) and emerge from a tree (see also connection of Attis and Osiris with trees); he carries the bull (Mithra taurophoros) to be killed; he meets with the sun (Helios, sol) who kneels before him; they shake hands in agreement and ride together in the chariot of the Sun.

The four winds and the four seasons can also be seen in the corners. The back of the stone shows the other main scene in the Mithraic iconography, the holy meal shared by Mithra and the Sun, who thus commemorate their agreement by dining in a cave around the body of the sacrificed bull. The interpretation of the Mithraic mysteries remains controversial, especially in regard to the possible Zoroastrian background of themes in the Roman mysteries. Persian motifs are evident in the initiatory grade of Perses and the attire of Mithra. The presence of the snake and the scorpion in the representation of Mithra slaying the bull could indicate a dualistic struggle of good against evil as in Zoroastrianism. However this is not certain; it is more possible that the snake, the raven, the chalice, and the lion symbolise the four elements (earth, air, water and fire). The candidates to initiation first followed a long preparation but the nature of this training is unknown. It could be that they learned the myths of the origin of the universe, and the creation of the world and of man, or the novices were taught the sacred hymns and chants, or the liturgical language. They had to submit to ordeals and tests of valour. Two dignitaries, the Father and the Herald performed initiation. Other people were present but their function is unknown. In one trial the naked and blinded novice (he cannot yet see the secrets of the mysteries) is pushed some distance by a mystagogus before kneeling beside a sword or stick while the mystagogus put both his hand of the novice’s head (sometime the sword is held by a priest). Afterwards the novice lies on the ground as if dead and awaiting to be given a symbolic new life. The sword is, of course, symbolic of cutting the novice free of his past life. After further purification rites, and going through a time of fasting and abstinence the initiate became a full member of the Mystery. On the initiation day they then took bread and water (mixed probably with wine, a symbol of the flesh and blood of the sacred bull), repeated sacred formula, and participated to a sacred meal. By that time he had sworn the oath of secrecy, he had been branded on the hands or forehead, and had pressed the Father right hand (iunctio dextrarum) before his ordeal were finished.  Probably there were some more stressing and fearful trials (such as baptisms of fire and water, death and resurrection) but we have no historical evidences to tell us what they were. After the ceremony he would be known as the brother (frater) of the other initiates, and the son of the Father. In order to be recognised by the Father the initiate was tattooed on both hands. These initiation rituals were seen as bringing salvation and transformation in the initiates, and they were described as rebirth and creation –or recreation- rites. It was said that the initiates started a new life during which their souls was ascending to the realm of the Divine.

There were seven steps in the initiation (Raven – Bridegroom – Soldier – Lion – Persian – Courier of the Sun – Father). These seven stages correspond well with the archaeological evidences of the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia, Italy, the floor of which has seven stations decorated with symbols of the seven stages of initiation. Another Mithraeum, again in Ostia, has seven stations marked with seven arcs, and still another has a floor mosaic with seven gates. Celsus claims that during the Mithraic ascent, the initiate climbed a ladder through the seven gates of heaven, associated with seven planets and seven metals and, indirectly, with the seven days of the week culminating in the Sun’s day. Even the Mithras Liturgy that lies on the fringe of Mithraism offers seven stages of ascent to the highest god. From the evidences, the Sun-God appears to be inferior to Mithra who is regarded as Sol invictus. According to Mithraic teachings, the moon has the power to purify the semen of the bull and nurtured the growth of plants and herbs during the night. In some representations of the bull-slaying a single ray from the nimbus of Sol can be seen flashing in the direction of Mithra. Sol also seems to use a raven as a messenger to give instruction to Mithra. This could mean that Sol is a mediator between the Supreme Power of Good (Ahura-Mazda) and Mithra who, as bull-slayer, is a mediator between man and Ahura Mazda. Therefore Sol-Helios-Apollo governs indirectly Mithra’s actions and participates in the bull slaying. If this is true, then the Sun-God is superior to Mithra and has greater power. In other representations, mainly from outside Rome, the Sun-God is seen kneeling before Mithra in a submissive attitude. In other representations the two gods seem to be concluding an agreement, or a blood pact. Another theory says that Sol was originally superior to Mithra but later on both were incorporated into one sun-figure, as when Mithra and Sol ascended to heaven in their chariot. In conclusion, it could be that the antagonism that has been assumed to have existed between the two Sun-Gods has been reconciled into eternal friendship. As Mithra ascents in his chariot after doing his worldly deeds, so the initiate himself can hope for his own return to the eternal sunlight. Two other figures dressed like Mithra in Persian clothes are often present in the representations of the bull slaying ceremony.

They are placed on either side of the bull, and sometimes one of them holds the bull’s tail as if to share its magic power, or to stimulate the growth of the corn ears sprouting from it. Sometimes these figures are represented as shepherds who were present at Mithra s’ birth, but they differ from Attis since each carries a torch pointing up or down, symbolising the ascending or descending path of Sol and Luna, the rising and setting sources of light, life and death. The bearer with the torch pointing up is placed under Luna, and the other with the torch pointing down, under Sol. They are called Cautes, symbol of the rising morning sun, and Cautopates, the setting evening sun. At Cautes’ feet there is sometime a crowing cock whose crowing drives evil spirits away. Cautopates has a sad expression while cautes seems happy. Cautes and Cautopates form a trinity with Mithra, and they are gods too. Cautes represents the position of the sun in the morning, Mithra its course at midday, and Cautopates its setting. Mithra may have been worshipped at noon and we know that the middle day of the month was dedicated to him. Mithra’s teachings, based on astrology, pay much attention to the position of the sun in the zodiac.

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