Skip to content

2.3.1 Mithraism

The evolution of the divine Mithra, from its origin in its ancient past to his position as a bull-slayer in the Roman mysteries, is a long, complex, and mainly unknown story. The ancient Indo-Iranian people already knew Mithra as a god of light, truth, and integrity. In the Vedic literature of India, Mithra is allied with Varuna the god of heaven, and in the Zoroastrian literature of Persia (the Avesta) Mithra is associated with Ahura Mazda, the wise lord. In the Avesta Mithra is the champion of the truth of Ahura Mazda and a warrior against the falsehood of Ahriman. The Avesta calls him “the Lord of wide pastures” because he provided cattle, prosperity and life. The Magi priests also believed in? Mithra and they spread his worship to the West and the pirates of the southeastern Asia worshipped him to in the first century BC.

The Mithraic mysteries

The Mithraic mysteries flourished in the Roman Empire from the 2d century AD. They were mysteries for men and they attracted soldiers, sailors and imperial officers to the divine warrior of light, truth, and justice. This explains the number of Mithraea (sanctuaries of Mithra) built in the frontier provinces as well as in the cities and ports of the Roman Empire. Various emperors also favoured his worship. The devotees to Mithra entered the Mithraea, described as caves, and participated in various purifications, initiatory rites, and ceremonial meals. According to the Christian author Tertullian, Mithraic initiates underwent ordeals and tests of valour, were baptised or washed in water, and were sealed on their foreheads. Another Christian author, Justin Martyr claims that the Mithraic initiates took bread and a cup of water (mixed or not with wine, probably symbols of the body and blood of the bull) and proclaimed certain formulas at a holy meal. The Mithraic rituals intended to bring salvation and transformation of the initiates; they were described as rebirth and creation (or re-creation). The new life of the initiates was seen as an ascent of the soul to the realm of the divine. The creation or re-creation applied not only to the initiates, but also to the cosmos. Mithraic monuments show that the slaying of the bull was a moment of creation and life: grain sprouted from the bull’s tail, or from the wound itself.
Initiation was done in seven progressive stages known as:

Raven (Corax)
Bridegroom (Nymphus or Occult, Cryphius)
Soldier (Miles)
Lion (Leo)
Persian (Perses)
Courier of the Sun (Heliodromus)
Father (Pater)

Mithra in India and Iran

In 1907 many clay tablets were found in the archives of Boghazkoy, the capital of the ancient Hittites in the north of the Anatolian plateau. These tablets contain the first recorded mention of the name “Mitra” together with the Lord of Heaven. Mitra was the protector of a treaty between the Hatti (Hittites) and the Mittani. This treaty dates from the 14th century BC. As the latest date of the recorded existence to the western Mithraism is from the 5th century AD we can assume that this god was revered for at least 2,000 years. In the Veda and the Avesta, Mithra is associated with the Supreme Being, Varuna or Ahura-Mazda, and shares their attributes. However his story is not always the same all the time. In Iran the deities were divided into two groups:

– The deities associated with Ahura-Mazda, the All-Wise, who ruled over the realm of light.
– The powers associated with Ahriman, the god of darkness.

The two groups are in continual opposition but, one day, the forces of good will defeat the forces of evil. In this war Mithra has the status of yazata (an ally) who fights in the rang of the good and righteous. Mithra is the god of light, who in India was already identified with the sun. The Indian Mithra has some lesser divinities around him (Aryaman, Bhaga) as well as in Persaia (Sraosa, Asi). Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster (who lived between 1000 and 600 BC), called in question the power of Mithra.

The Arrival of Mithra in Europe

According to Plutarch the Romans became acquainted with Mithra through pirates of Cicilia, a province of Asia Minor. The pirates, a group of adventurers, conducted a communal worship of Mithra, whose cult was for men only. It is possible that these pirates took their cult to Italy after their defeat by Pompeii and their transportation to Italy.

The Followers of Mithra

In Iran Mithra displayed a military character, always ready for war. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was then a kind of military order and life on earth was a military campaign led by the victorious god. This attracted soldiers of all rank in the Roman legions. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline, and the taking of an oath were the main factors in the spread of the Mithra cult and its official recognition. Evidences of the second century AD show that Mithra and his cult followed the Roman legions everywhere they went. Soldiers and traders carried Mithraism to the furthest borders of the Roman Empire and even the high officers of the army became his followers From the second century AD, the Roman court was won over the Mithra and a specially appointed court priest (Sacerdos invicti Mithrae domus Augustanea) was in charge of the rites. Many emperors and high dignitaries were his followers and they built many Mithraic temples in Rome and in the Empire. Nero was the first emperor to abide by this doctrine and he was greeted as the new Mithra. Due to the favours of the imperial court, the Mithra cult gained a large following, especially in the 2d and 3d centuries AD. In Rome alone there were at one time more than 100 temples dedicated to Mithra.

The Mithraic Temple

Mithra had to be worshipped in a natural cave, if at all possible, close to a source of water. Such caves have been found in France (Bourg St. Andeol), Yugoslavia (Cavtat-Epidaurum, Nefertara near Pledvlje), Tirgusor (Rumania), Rome and Ostia (Italy), and Germany (Schwarzerden) all with designs of Mithra as bull-slayer cut in the rock. When no natural cave was available, a Mithraeum was built but with the appearance of a cave, possibly underground. The cave was symbolic of the celestial vault and the ceiling of a Mithraeum was often vaulted and decorated with stars.

The God’s Most Famous Feat

On the rear wall, or in a special niche, of every Mithraeum there was a representation of the bull-slaying, the most outstanding of Mithra’ deed performed for the benefit of humanity. The slaying of the bull was always represented in the same general way: the god, young and strong, forces the bull down with his knees and, holding up its head by one horn or the nostril, trusts his dagger deep into the bull’s heart. In the vaulted border of the cave behind Mithra there was often a raven bringing a message to which the god listens. In classical literature the raven is the messenger of Apollo and, in the Mithraic ritual he is associated with the Apollo-like Sun-god.

The Legend of Mithra

a. The miraculous birth of Mithra
Mithra birth was celebrated on December 25, the day of the advent of the new light and, later on, Mithra’ festival day. His birth was a miracle as he was forced out of a rock by magical power.

b. The adventures with the bull
The slaying of the bull is always, of course, the main theme and it incorporates the adventures leading to it. According to Porphyry the bull was identified with the moon, “the female helpmate of creation”. Sometime Mithra is seen carrying away the dead bull.

c. The miracle of the striking of the rock
A relief illustrating Mithra miraculous birth shows a young god looking at the light of a burning torch that he hold in his right hand. He is the personification of this light. On the rock from which he is born, lie a dagger, a bow and a quiver, and a single arrow. Bow and arrow served Mithra in two occasions, the striking of the rock and for hunting.
In general Mithra is shown seated and aiming his arrow at the rock face; sometime a second person clasps Mithra’ knee or stand behind the god. Both persons are waiting to drink the water that will flow out of the rock.

d. Mithra the hunter
Many reliefs represent the legend of Mithra hunting. Generally Mithra is accompanied by some dogs, a lion, sometimes also a snake, and followed by a page in oriental dress bearing the god’s quiver. Mithra, the Rider and Sun-God, symbolises the daily course of the sun.

e. Sol and Mithra

It is not possible, with what we know, to draw a coherent explanation concerning the relationship between Sol and Mithra. In many inscriptions Mithra is described as “Deus Sol Invictus”, the invincible Sun-God. Together with Cautes and Cautopates he represents the sun at the three main divisions of the day: morning, afternoon, and evening.

f. The sacred meal and the ascent to heaven
After the hunt and the miracle of the bull-slaying, Mithra completes his stay on earth by banqueting with Sol off the flesh of the bull. The meal takes place in a cave where Mithra, in his Persian robes, reclines or sits with Sol behind a table; the relationship between the two gods is clearly a friendly one. This divine meal is as frequently portrayed as the slaying of the bull.

The Mithraic Pantheon

In the Mithraic teachings two great powers are opposed to each other, Ahura-Mazda, the god of light, and Ahriman, the god of darkness. Above them there is the all-powerful Zerban, the god of Time to whom, as to Fatum or Fate, both powers are subject. Sometimes Zerban is portrayed as a young god like Mithra thus giving the impression that Mithra was the Time-god reborn, a second Kronos-Saturnl. Plutarch calls Mithra a mediator who occupies a central position between the two worlds of light and darkness, of good and evil; in this view he is similar to the “Spirit”/ (spiritua). According to some Gnostic sects he assists to the fight against evil until victory is achieved and is the link between the realm of pure light and the world of man.

The God of Infinite Time

In many Mithraic temples there were representations of a monstrous figure (a monstruosum portentum according to Hieronimus), generally with a lion’s head and a human body entwined by a snake. Some scholars believe that it represents Ahriman, the god of evil, but it is far from certain as it is difficult to believe that an altar dedicated to a devil could be installed in a Christian Church.

Initiation into the mysteries

Initiation generally took place at puberty. The youth was admitted into a secret society, religious or not, after severe trials to test his courage and stamina. He is now separated from his family and he must stand on his own, as, from an adolescent, he has become a man with certain rights, but also some duties. He has to safeguard the secret of his “club” that cannot be divulged to strangers or to women. The initiates will assist the members of his organisation who will help him too if necessary. The future initiates into Mithraism were first instructed for a long period of time as a preparation for the solemn ceremony. The nature of this training is unknown. The initiates would never reveal the secrets of their organisation, but probably they learned what to answer any inquiries made by outsiders. There would then have been open secrets and some jealously guarded ones. Before the initiation the novice had to take a solemn oath (a sacramentum), that he would never reveal anything of what he was going to be taught. After the ceremony he would be known as the brother (frater) of the other initiates and the son of the Father.

The Seven grades of Initiation

Only those initiates wholly dedicated to Mithra, those with the necessary education and funds, could hope to reach the high grades and ultimately the seventh, to become the Father of Father.

Constellations and the Elements

The educated members of the Roman Empire studied astronomy, but astrology, “the illegitimate sister”, was known by most of the population and influenced the Mithra’ cult. The sun and the moon were associated with the miracle of the bull-slaying and they played an important role in the order of the seven planets. The seven planets were sometimes associated with the seven days of the week.

Women and the Mithraic Cult

Women have no place in the Mithraic cult and this is not the only cult that ignores them. It is true that the mysteries of Eleusis, Isis, Cybele and Dionysus were open to both sex and, sometimes, even gave a main part to women; some cults as those of the Bona Dea excluded men totally. The Mithraic cult’s preference for men reflected the old conception of a kind of “clan”, were secrets were divulged only to the males who, as household heads, represented his family. According to Tertullian, the Mithraic cult also had “virgines et continentes”, that is men and women who denied themselves the act of love in honour of the god. Then the women could also dedicate themselves to the god although they were not accepted in the mysteries. No other historical evidences have been found on this point.

Human sacrifices

According to Herodotus, the Persians had a custom to bury a person alive as a thank offering to the god of the underworld. It is not certain if this practice did take place in the Mithraic cult although some written traces would lead us to think that it did. However it is also possible that the Mithraic cult made reference or simulated human sacrifices to instil fear. This practice may be a relic of ritual human sacrifice, which may have taken place in the East before being abolished when the cult spread to the West.

Liturgical Hymns

Herodotus, the “Father of History”, has described a Persian sacrifice in which the person making the offering is supposed to pray for benefit, not to himself alone, but for all Persians. The sacrificed animal is cut up and the meat arranged on a bed of fresh grass and clover and “the Magus stepped closer, and sang the theogony and the genesis of the gods”.

The Fall of Mithra

In the 3d century AD, the worship of Mithra has spread so much in the Roman Empire that it was able to survive the emergence of Persia as a competitor of Rome in the political and military fields. The attraction of the mystery cults was that through the initiation ceremonies one established a personal relationship with the god of one’s choice. The oriental cults laid great stress on personal salvation during life and after death and this attracted many people to the teachings of Mithra. The search for a monotheistic cult, stimulated by the philosophical doctrines of the time, led to the cult of the Sun-God who was worshipped as the only almighty and divine power. The Mithraic cult took advantage of this. For instance Diocletian, in 307 or 308, together with other imperial rulers, dedicated an altar to Mithra, “the benefactor of the Empire”, during a conference at Carnuntum on the border of the Roman Empire. The influence of the Mithraic cult reached its highest point during this period and, for some time, it seemed that it would reign supreme. Only Christianity was able to stop it achieving total dominance. The battle at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber in 312 AD was decisive not only for Constantine, but also for the Mithraic cult. The vision of the Sun-God by Aurelian led to his victory against Zenobia, and the worship of the Sun-God was proclaimed the official state religion of Rome. Later the vision of the symbol of Christ brought victory to Constantine and convinced him to impose Christianity as the state religion of the Empire. The second half of the 4th century was decisive for the outcome of the struggle between Christianity and Paganism. The Emperor Julian declared himself to be a convinced Mithraist. He was named the Apostate for being the last emperor to profess the Mithraic faith. For him, Mithra was the Sun and was one and the same with Apollo, Phaethon, Hyperion and Prometheus, the other gods merely expressing different aspects of the Sun. After being initiated in a Mithraeum at Constantinople, and entered into the higher grade of the cult, he did everything in his power to encourage the triumph of the Mithraic cult. Unfortunately he was killed in 363 AD during his expedition against the Persian King Shapur while still very young. His death was followed by a period of tolerance that was cut short by an edit of Emperor Gratian in 382 AD that eliminated the state support to the Mithraic cult. After Praetextatus’s death in 385 AD and the accession of Theodosius, the Mithra cult was on his way to extinction. An edict of 391 AD forbad all Pagan worship in Rome and all visit to pagan temples. Another edict of the following year (392) forbad all practice of Pagan religions, private devotions included. However some of the followers of Mithra refused to admit defeat. Their leader, Flavianus, joined Eugenius who was fighting Theodosius in the north of Italy. Theodosius won the battle, Eugenius was murdered and Flavianus committed suicide. The spiritual struggle went on for many years. The worship of Mithra survived in some isolated regions but the power of the Sun-God had reached its end. Christianity and the spirit of the new age defeated him, and his cult perished.