Mithraic mysteries

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Double-faced Mithraic relief. Rome, second to third century AD. Louvre Museum

The Mithraic mysteries or mysteries of Mithras (also Mithraism) was a mystery religion centered on the god Mithras, which became popular among the military in the Roman Empire, from the 1st to 4th centuries AD. Information on the religion is based mainly on interpretations of the many surviving monuments. The most characteristic of these are depictions of Mithras as being born from a rock, and as sacrificing a bull. His worshippers had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, with ritual meals. They met in underground temples, which survive in large numbers. Little else is known for certain.

Summary of the cult myth

Mithras born from the rock (petra genetrix), Marble, 180-192 CE. From the area of S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome.

Mithras is born from a rock.[1] He is depicted in his temples slaying a bull in the tauroctony (see section below). Little is known about the beliefs associated with this.[2] The ancient histories of the cult by Euboulos and Pallas have perished.[3] The name of the god was certainly given as Mithras (with an ‘s’) in Latin monuments, although Mithra may have been used in Greek.[4]

History and development


In antiquity, texts refer to "the mysteries of Mithras", and to its adherents, as "the mysteries of the Persians."[5] But there is great dispute about whether there is really any link with Persia, and its origins are quite obscure.[6]

The mysteries of Mithras were not practiced until the 1st century AD.[7] The unique underground temples or Mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the first century AD.[8]

Earliest cult locations

The attested locations of the cult in the earliest phase (c. 80–120 AD) are as follows:[9]

Mithraea datable from pottery

  • Nida/Heddemheim III (Germania Sup.)
  • Mogontiacum (Germania Sup.)
  • Pons Aeni (Noricum)
  • Caesarea (Judaea)

Datable dedications

  • Nida/Heddernheim I (Germania Sup.) (CIMRM 1091/2, 1098)
  • Carnuntum III (Pannonia Sup.) (CIMRM 1718)
  • Novae (Moesia Inf.) (CIMRM 2268/9)
  • Oescus(Moesia Inf.)(CIMRM 2250)
  • Rome(CIMRM 362, 593/4)

Datable literary reference

  • Rome (Statius, Theb. 1.719-20)
Earliest archaeology

The earliest Mithraic monument showing Mithras slaying the bull is thought to be CIMRM 593. This is a depiction of Mithras killing the bull, found in Rome. There is no date, but the inscription tells us that it was dedicated by a certain Alcimus, steward of T. Claudius Livianus. Vermaseren and Gordon believe that this Livianus is a certain Livianus who was commander of the Praetorian guard in 101 AD, which would give an earliest date of 98-99 AD.[10]

An altar or block from near SS. Pietro e Marcellino on the Esquiline in Rome was inscribed with a bilingual inscription by an Imperial freedman named T. Flavius Hyginus, probably between 80-100 AD. It is dedicated to Sol Invictus Mithras.[11]

CIMRM 2268 is a broken base or altar from Novae/Steklen in Moesia Inferior, dated 100 AD, showing Cautes and Cautopates.

Other early archaeology includes the Greek inscription from Venosia by Sagaris actor probably from 100–150 AD; the Sidon cippus dedicated by Theodotus priest of Mithras to Asclepius, 140-141 AD; and the earliest military inscription, by C. Sacidius Barbarus, centurion of XV Apollinaris, from the bank of the Danube at Carnuntum, probably before 114 AD.[12]

The last is the earliest archaeological evidence outside Rome for the Roman worship of Mithras, a record of Roman soldiers who came from the military garrison at Carnuntum.[13] The earliest dateable Mithraeum outside Rome dates from 148 AD.[14] The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima is the only one in Palestine and the date is inferred.[15]

Vermaseren notes that no Mithraic monument can be certainly dated earlier than the end of the first century AD.[16]

Five small terracotta plaques of a figure holding a knife over a bull have been excavated near Kerch in the Crimea, dated by Beskow and Clauss to the second half of the first century BC,[17] and by Beck to 50 BC-50 AD, which might be a depiction of Mithras.[18] The bull-slaying figure wears a Phrygian cap, but is described by Beck and Beskow as otherwise unlike standard depictions of the tauroctony.[19]

Earliest literary references

The earliest surviving ancient literary text that can be associated with the Mysteries of Mithras is in Statius c. 80 AD, who makes an enigmatic reference, possibly to the tauroctony.[20] Dio Cassius, describing the visit of Tiridates to the emperor Nero in 63 AD, refers to his worshipping Mithras; but the context suggests that the Persian Mitra is intended.[21]

Origin Theories

Mithras and the Bull: This fresco from the mithraeumat Marino, Italy (third century) shows the tauroctonyand the celestial lining of Mithras’ cape.


The Greek biographer Plutarch (46 – 127) says that the pirates of Cilicia, the coastal province in the southeast of Anatolia, were the origin of the Mithraic rituals that were being practiced in Rome in his day: "They likewise offered strange sacrifices; those of Olympus I mean; and they celebrated certain secret mysteries, among which those of Mithras continue to this day, being originally instituted by them." (Life of Pompey 24, referring to events c. 68 BC). The 4th century commentary on Vergil by Servius says that Pompey settled some of these pirates in Calabria.[22] But whether any of this relates to the origins of the mysteries is unclear.[23]


According to 3rd-4th century AD philosopher Porphyry, Mithraists considered that their cult was founded by Zoroaster.[24] But Porphyry is writing close to the demise of the cult, and modern scholar Robert Turcan has challenged the idea that Porphyry’s statements about Mithraism are accurate. His case is that far from representing what Mithraists believed, they are merely representations by the neo-platonists of what it suited them in the late 4th century to read into the mysteries.[25] Merkelbach and Beck believe that Porphyry’s work "is in fact thoroughly coloured with the doctrines of the Mysteries."[26]

Cumont’s hypothesis: possible origins in Persian Zoroastrianism

Scholarship on Mithras begins with Franz Cumont, who published a two volume collection of source texts and images of monuments in French in 1894–1900. Cumont’s hypothesis, as the author summarizes it in the first 32 pages of his book, was that the Roman religion was "the Roman form of Mazdaism",[27] the Persian state religion, disseminated from the East.

Cumont’s theories were examined and largely rejected at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies held in 1971. John Hinnells was unwilling to reject entirely the idea of Iranian origin,[28] but wrote: "we must now conclude that his reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography."[29] He discussed Cumont’s reconstruction of the bull-slaying scene and stated "that the portrayal of Mithras given by Cumont is not merely unsupported by Iranian texts but is actually in serious conflict with known Iranian theology."[30] Another paper by R. L. Gordon argued that Cumont severely distorted the available evidence by forcing the material to conform to his predetermined model of Zoroastrian origins. Gordon suggested that the theory of Persian origins was completely invalid and that the Mithraic mysteries in the West was an entirely new creation.[31]

Boyce states that "no satisfactory evidence has yet been adduced to show that, before Zoroaster, the concept of a supreme god existed among the Iranians, or that among them Mithra – or any other divinity – ever enjoyed a separate cult of his or her own outside either their ancient or their Zoroastrian pantheons."[32]

Beck tells us that since the 1970s scholars have generally rejected Cumont, but adds that recent theories about how Zoroastrianism was during the period BC now makes some new form of Cumont’s east-west transfer possible.[33] "Apart from the name of the god himself, in other words, Mithraism seems to have developed largely in and is, therefore, best understood from the context of Roman culture."[34]

Modern theories

Bas-relief depicting the tauroctony. Mithras is here named Sol Invictus. Sol and Luna appear at the top of the relief

Beck believes that the Mithraic religion was created in Rome, by a single founder who had some knowledge of both Greek and Oriental religion, but suggests that some of the ideas used may have passed through the Hellenistic kingdoms: "Mithras — moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god Helios – was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I, king of the small, but prosperous "buffer" state of Commagene, in the mid first century BC"[5].

Merkelbach suggests that its mysteries were essentially created by a particular person or persons[35] and created in a specific place, the city of Rome, by someone from an eastern province or border state who knew the Iranian myths in detail, which he wove into his new grades of initiation; but that he must have been Greek and Greek-speaking because he incorporated elements of Greek Platonism into it. The myths, he suggests, were probably created in the milieu of the imperial bureaucracy, and for its members.[36] Clauss tends to agree. Beck calls this "the most likely scenario" and states "Till now, Mithraism has generally been treated as if it somehow evolved Topsy-like from its Iranian precursor — a most implausible scenario once it is stated explicitly."[37]

Archaeologist Lewis M. Hopfe notes that there are only three Mithraea in Roman Syria, in contrast to further west. He writes: "Archaeology indicates that Roman Mithraism had its epicenter in Rome… the fully developed religion known as Mithraism seems to have begun in Rome and been carried to Syria by soldiers and merchants."[38]

Taking a different view from other modern scholars, Ulansey argues that the Mithraic mysteries began in the Greco-Roman world as a religious response to the discovery by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of the astronomical phenomenon of theprecession of the equinoxes — a discovery that amounted to discovering that the entire cosmos was moving in a hitherto unknown way. This new cosmic motion, he suggests, was seen by the founders of Mithraism as indicating the existence of a powerful new god capable of shifting the cosmic spheres and thereby controlling the universe.[39] This would explain the Mithraic mythology borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism, as the Zoroastrians had been practicing such a ritual calendar based on the precession of the equinoxes ever since its introduction by Zoroaster in 1700 BC. Furthermore, Ware asserted that the Romans who founded the religion borrowed the name "Mithras" from Avestan Mithra.[40]

Later History

The first important expansion of the mysteries in the Empire seems to have happened quite quickly, late in the reign of Antoninus Pius and under Marcus Aurelius. By this time all the key elements of the mysteries were in place.[41]

Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, spreading at an "astonishing" rate at the same period when Sol Invictus became part of the state.[42] At this period a certain Pallas devoted a monograph to Mithras, and a little later Euboulus wrote a History of Mithras, although both works are now lost.[43] According to the possibly spurious fourth century Historia Augusta, the emperor Commodus participated in its mysteries.[44] But it never became one of the state cults.[45]

The end of Mithras

It is difficult to trace when the cult of Mithras came to an end. Beck states that "Quite early in the [fourth] century the religion was as good as dead throughout the empire."[46] Inscriptions from the fourth century are few. Clauss states that inscriptions show Mithras as one of the cults listed on inscriptions by pagan senators in Rome as part of the "pagan revival" among the elite.[47]

There is virtually no evidence for the continuance of the cult of Mithras into the fifth century. In particular large numbers of votive coins deposited by worshippers have been recovered at the Mithraeum at Pons Sarravi (Sarrebourg) in Gallia Belgica, in a series that runs from Gallienus (253-68) to Theodosius I(379-395). These were scattered over the floor when the Mithraeum was destroyed, as Christians apparently regarded the coins as polluted; and they therefore provide reliable dates for the functioning of the Mithraeum.[48] It cannot be shown that any Mithraeum continued in use in the fifth century. The coin series in all Mithraea end at the end of the fourth century at the latest. The cult disappeared earlier than that of Isis. Isis was still remembered in the middle ages as a pagan deity, but Mithras was already forgotten in late antiquity.[49]

Cumont stated in the English edition of his book that Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges into the fifth century, but the reference was only given in the French text, and was to the date of the coins in the Mithraeum at Pons Sarravi, none of which are in fact fifth century.[50]


Much about the cult of Mithras is only known from reliefs and sculptures. There have been many attempts to interpret this material.

The tauroctony

See also: Tauroctony

tauroctony in Kunsthistorisches Museum

In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull; the so-called tauroctony.[51]

The image may be a relief, or free-standing, and side details may be present or omitted. The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted [52] bull, holding it by the nostrils [52] with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. As he does so, he looks over his shoulder towards the figure of Sol. A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood. A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.[53]

The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.[54] Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. Top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meetingSol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.

Tauroctony from Neuenheim near Heidelberg, with subsiduary framing panels depicting the life of Mithras

Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead.[55].

Interpretations and theories

Franz Cumont hypothesized that the imagery of the tauroctony was a Graeco-Roman representation of an event in Zoroastrian cosmogony described in a 9th century CE Zoroastrian text, theBundahishn. In this text the evil spirit Ahriman (not Mithras) slays the primordial creature Gavaevodata which is represented as a bovine.[56] Cumont speculated that a version of the myth must have existed in which Mithras, not Ahriman, killed the bovine. But Hinnells points out that no such variant of the myth is known, and that this is merely speculation: "In no known Iranian text [either Zoroastrian or otherwise] does Mithra slay a bull"[57]

David Ulansey finds astronomical evidence from the mithraeum itself.[58] He reminds us that the Platonic writer Porphyry wrote in the 3rd century CE that the cave-like temple Mithraea depicted "an image of the world"[59] and that Zoroaster consecrated a cave resembling the world fabricated by Mithras[60] The ceiling of the Caesarea Maritima Mithraeum retains traces of blue paint, which may mean the ceiling was painted to depict the sky and the stars.[61]

Unusual Tauroctony of Mithras at the Brukenthal National Museum

Beck has given the following celestial anatomy of the Tauroctony:[62]

Component of Tauroctony
Celestial Counterpart


Canis Minor, Canis Major

Hydra, Serpens, Draco



Wheat’s ear (on bull’s tail)

Twins Cautes and Cautopates






Several celestial identities for the Tauroctonous Mithras (TM) himself have been proposed. Beck summarizes them in the table below.[63]


Bausani, A. (1979)
TM associated with Leo, in that the tauroctony is a type of the ancient lion-bull (Leo-Taurus) combat motif.

Beck, R.L. (1994)
TM = Sun in Leo

Insler, S. (1978)
bull-killing = heliacal setting of Taurus

Jacobs, B. (1999)
bull-killing = heliacal setting of Taurus

North, J.D. (1990)
TM = Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) setting, his knife = Triangulum setting, his mantle = Capella (Alpha Aurigae) setting.

Rutgers, A.J. (1970)
TM = Sun, Bull = Moon

Sandelin, K.-G. (1988)
TM = Auriga

Speidel, M.P. (1980)
TM = Orion

Ulansey, D. (1989)
TM = Perseus

Weiss, M. (1994, 1998)
TM = the Night Sky

Ulansey has proposed that Mithras seems to have been derived from the constellation of Perseus, which is positioned just above Taurus in the night sky. He sees iconographic and mythological parallels between the two figures: both are young heroes, carry a dagger and wear a Phrygian cap. He also mentions the similarity of the image of Perseus killing the Gorgon and the tauroctony, both figures being associated with underground caverns and both having connections to Persia as further evidence.[64]

Michael Speidel associates Mithras with the constellation of Orion because of the proximity to Taurus, and the consistent nature of the depiction of the figure as having wide shoulders, a garment flared at the hem, and narrowed at the waist with a belt, thus taking on the form of the constellation.[65]

Beck has criticized Speidel and Ulansey of adherence to a literal cartographic logic, describing their theories as a "will-o’-the-whisp" which "lured them down a false trail."[66] He argues that a literal reading of the tauroctony as a star chart raises two major problems: it is difficult to find a constellation counterpart for Mithras himself (despite efforts by Speidel and Ulansey) and that unlike in a star chart, each feature of the tauroctony might have more than a single counterpart. Rather than seeing Mithras as a constellation, Beck argues that Mithras is the prime traveller on the celestial stage (represented by the other symbols of the scene), the Unconquered Sun moving through the constellations.[66]

The Banquet

Sol and Mithras banqueting with Luna and the twin divinities Cautes and Cautopates, his attendants. Marble, side B of a two-faced Roman relief, 2nd or 3rd century CE.

The second most important scene after the tauroctony in Mithraic art is the so-called banquet scene.[67] The two scenes are sometimes sculpted on the opposite sides of the same relief. The banquet scene features Mithras and the Sun god banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered bull.[67] On the specific banquet scene on the Fiano Romano relief (see image on the right), one of the torchbearers points a caduceus towards the base of an altar, where flames appear to spring up. Robert Turcan has argued that since the caduceus is an attribute of Mercury, and in mythology Mercury is depicted as a psychopomp, the eliciting of flames in this scene is referring to the dispatch of human souls and expressing the Mithraic doctrine on this matter.[68] Turcan also connects this event to the tauroctony: the blood of the slayed bull has soaked the ground at the base of the altar, and from the blood the souls are elicited in flames by the caduceus.[68]

Leontocephaline of the Mithraic Mysteries. Line drawing of the figure found at the mithraeum of C. Valerius Heracles and sons (dedicated 190 CE) at Ostia Antica, Italy. CIMRM 312


One of the most characteristic features of the Mysteries is the naked lion-headed figure often found in Mithraic temples. He is entwined by a serpent, with the snake’s head often resting on the lion’s head. The lion’s mouth is often open, giving a horrifying impression. He is usually represented having four wings, two keys (sometimes a single key) and a scepter in his hand. Sometimes the figure is standing on a globe inscribed with a diagonal cross. A more scarcely represented variant of the figure with a human head is also found.[69]

Although animal-headed figures are prevalent in contemporary Egyptian and Gnostic mythological representations, the Leontocephaline is entirely restricted to Mithraic art.[69]

The name of the figure has been deciphered from dedicatory inscriptions to be Arimanius (though the archeological evidence is not very strong), which is nominally the equivalent of Ahriman, a demon figure in the Zoroastrian pantheon. Arimanius is known from inscriptions to have been a deus in the Mithraic cult (CIMRM 222 from Ostia, 369 from Rome, 1773 and 1775 from Pannonia).[70]

Although the exact identity of the lion-headed figure is debated by scholars, it is largely agreed that the god is associated with time and seasonal change.[71]

The Taurobolium

No ancient source associates Mithras with the Taurobolium. The only monument to do so, CIL VI, 736, is a forgery.[72]

Rituals and worship

Little is known about the beliefs of the cult of Mithras. Modern accounts rely primarily on modern interpretation of the reliefs.[2]

No Mithraic scripture or first-hand account of its highly secret rituals survives, with the possible exception of a liturgy recorded in a 4th century papyrus, which may not be Mithraic at all.[73] The walls of Mithraea were commonly whitewashed, and where this survives it tends to carry extensive repositories of graffiti; and these, together with inscriptions on Mithraic monuments, form the main source for Mithraic texts.[74]

Nevertheless, it is clear from the archeology of numerous Mithraea that most rituals were associated with feasting – as eating utensils and food residues are almost invariably found. These tend to include both animal bones and also very large quantities of fruit residues.[75] The presence of large amounts of cherry-stones in particular would tend to confirm mid-summer (late June, early July) as a season especially associated with Mithraic festivities. The Virunum album, in the form of an inscribed bronze placque, records a Mithraic festival of commemoration as taking place on 26 June 184. Beck argues that religious celebrations on this date are indicative of special significance being given to the Summer solstice; but equally it may well be noted that, in northern and central Europe, reclining on a masonry plinth in an unheated cave was likely to be a predominantly summertime activity. For their feasts, Mithraic initiates reclined on stone benches arranged along the longer sides of the Mithraeum – typically there might be room for 15-30 diners, but very rarely many more than 40.[76] Counterpart dining rooms, or tricliniawere to be found above ground in the precints of almost any temple or religious sanctuary in the Roman empire, and such rooms were commonly used for their regular feasts by Roman ‘clubs’, or collegia. Mithraic feasts probably performed a very similar function for Mithraists as the collegia did for those entitled to join them; indeed, since qualification for Roman collegia tended to be restricted to particular families, localities or traditional trades, Mithraism may have functioned in part as providing clubs for the unclubbed.[77]

Each Mithraeum invariably had several altars at the further end, underneath the representation of the tauroctony; and also commonly contained considerable numbers of subsidiary altars, both in the main Mithraeum chamber, and in the ante-chamber or narthax.[78] These altars, which are of the standard Roman pattern, each carry a named dedicatory inscription from a particular initiate, who dedicated the altar to Mithras "in fulfillment of his vow", in gratitude for favours received. Burned residues of animal entrails are commonly found on the main altars indicating regular sacrificial use. However, Mithraea do not commonly appear to have been provided with facilities for ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals (a highly specialised function in Roman religion), and it may be presumed that a Mithraeum would have made arrangements for this service to be provided for them in co-operation with the professional victimarius[79] of the civic cult.

Mithraic beliefs appear not to have been internally consistent and monolithic,[80] but rather, varied from location to location.[81] Mithraism had no predominant sanctuary or cultic centre; and, although each Mithraeum had its own officers and functionaries, there was no central supervisory authority. In some Mithraea, such as that at Dura Europos wall paintings depict prophets carrying scrolls[82], but no named Mithraic sages are known, nor does any reference give the title of any Mithraic scripture or teaching. It is known that intitates could transfer with their grades from one Mithraeum to another[83], but we do not know how a Mithraeum could tell who was properly an initiate (or indeed whether this was ever an issue; as it most certainly was in contemporary Christianity).

The Mithraeum

See also: Mithraeum

A mithraeum found in the ruins of Ostia Antica, Italy.

Temples of Mithras are sunk below ground, windowless, and very distinctive. In cities, the basement of an apartment block might be converted; elsewhere they might be excavated and vaulted over, or converted from a natural cave. Mithraic temples are common in the empire; although very unevenly distributed, with considerable numbers found in Rome, Ostia, Numidia, Dalmatia, Britain and along the Rhine/Danube frontier; while being much less common in Greece, Egypt, and Syria.[84] Mithriac rituals being secret, Mithraism could only be practiced within a Mithraeum[85]; and consequently it may be safely concluded that areas without Mithraea were also without Mithraists. More than 420 Mithraic sites have now been identified[86]. By their nature Mithraea tend to survive when other forms of religious structures do not; and consequently the relative prevalence of Mithraism in the population may well tend to be over-estimated.

For the most part, Mithraea tend to be small, externally undistinguished, and cheaply constructed; the cult generally preferring to create a new centre rather than expand an existing one. The Mithraeum represented the cave in which Mithras carried and then killed the bull; and where stone vaulting could not be afforded, the effect would be imitated with lath and plaster. They are commonly located close to springs or streams; fresh water appears to have been required for some Mithraic rituals, and a basin is often incorporated into the structure.[87] There is usually a narthax or ante-chamber at the entrance, and often other ancillary rooms for storage and the preparation of food. The term mithraeum is modern; in Italy inscriptions usually call it a spelaeum; outside Italy it is referred to as templum.

In their basic form, Mithraea were entirely different from the temples and shrines of other cults. In standard pattern Roman religious precincts, the temple building functioned as a house for the God; who was intended to be able to view through the opened doors and columnar portico, sacrificial worship being offered on an altar set in an open courtyard; potentially accessible not only to initiates of the cult, but also to colitores or non-initiated worshippers.[88] Mithraea were the antithesis of this [89]; being entirely inward-focussed with altars set within the building, and with no sacred precinct, or indeed any provision for worshippers other than initates.

Degrees of initiation

In the Suda under the entry "Mithras", it states that "no one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests."[90] Gregory Nazianzen refers to the "tests in the mysteries of Mithras".[91]

There were seven grades of initiation into the mysteries of Mithras, which are listed by St. Jerome.[92] Manfred Clauss states that the number of grades, seven, must be connected to the planets. A mosaic in the Ostia Mithraeum of Felicissimus depicts these grades, with heraldic emblems that are connected either to the grades or are just symbols of the planets. The grades also have an inscription besides them commending each grade into the protection of the different planetary gods.[93] In ascending order of importance the initiatory grades were:[94]

Associated planet/Protecting deity

Corax (raven)
beaker, caduceus

Nymphus (bridegroom, or male bride)
lamp, diadem

Miles (soldier)
pouch, helmet, lance

Leo (lion)
batillum, sistrum, thunderbolts

Perses (Persian)
akinakes, scythe, moon and the stars

Heliodromus (sun-runner)
torch, radiated crown, whip

Pater (father)
patera (or ring?), staff, Phrygian cap, sickle

Elsewhere, as at Dura Europos Mithraic graffiti survive giving membership lists, in which initiates of a Mithraeum are named with their Mithraic grades. At Virunum, the membership list or album sacratorum was maintained as an inscribed plaque, updated year by year as new members were initiated. By cross-referencing these lists it is sometimes possible to track initiates from one Mithraeum to another; and also speculatively to identify Mithraic initiates with persons on other contemporary lists – such as military service rolls, of lists of devotees of non-Mithraic religious sanctuaries. Names of initiates are also found in the dedication inscriptions of altars and other cult objects. Clauss noted in 1990 that overall, only about 14% of Mithriac names inscribed before 250 identify the initiates grade – and hence questioned that the traditional view that all initiates belonged to one of the seven grades.[95] Clauss argues that the grades represented a distinct class of priests, sacerdotes. Gordon maintains the former theory of Merkelbach and others, especially noting such examples as Dura where all names are associated with a Mithraic grade. Some scholars maintain that practice may have differed over time, or from one Mithraea to another.

The highest grade, pater, is far the most common found on dedications and inscriptions – and it would appear not to have been unusual for a Mithraeum to have several persons with this grade. The form pater patrum (father of fathers) is often found, which appears to indicate the pater with primary status. There are several examples of persons, commonly those of higher social status, joining a Mithraeum with the status pater – especially in Rome during the ‘pagan revival’ of the fourth century. It has been suggested that some Mithraea may have awarded honorary pater status to sympathetic dignitaries [96].

The initiate into each grade appears to have required to undertake a specific ordeal or test[97], involving exposure to heat, cold or threatened peril. An ‘ordeal pit’, dating to the early 3rd century, has been identified in the Mithraeum at Carrawburgh. Accounts of the cruelty of the emperor Commodus describes his amusing himself by enacting Mithriac initiation ordeals in homicidal form. By the later 3rd century, the enacted trials appear to have been abated in rigor, as ‘ordeal pits’ were floored over.

Admission into the community was completed with a handshake with the pater, just as Mithras and Sol shook hands. The initiates were thus referred to as syndexioi, those "united by the handshake". The term is used in an inscription by Proficentius[98] and derided by Firmicus Maternus[99]

Ritual imitations

Reconstruction of a mithraeum with a mosaic depicting the grades of initiation.

Activities of the most prominent deities in Mithraic scenes, Sol and Mithras, were imitated in rituals by the two most senior officers in the cult’s hierarchy, the Pater and the Heliodromus.[100] The initiates held a sacramental banquet, replicating the feast of Mithras and Sol.[100]

Reliefs on a cup found in Mainz,[101][102] appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as led into a location where a Pater would be seated in the guise of Mithras with a drawn bow. Accompanying the initiate is a mystagogue, who explains the symbolism and theology to the initiate. The Rite is thought to re-enact what has come to be called the ‘Water Miracle’, in which Mithras fires a bolt into a rock, and from the rock now spouts water.

Roger Beck has hypothesized a third processional Mithraic ritual, based on the Mainz cup and Porphyrys. This so-called Procession of the Sun-Runner features the Heliodromus, escorted by two figures representing Cautes and Cautopates (see below) and preceded by an initiate of the grade Miles leading a ritual enactment of the solar journey around the mithraeum, which was intended to represent the cosmos.[103]

Consequently it has been argued that most Mithraic rituals involved a re-enactment by the initiates of episodes in the Mithras narrative[104], a narrative whose main elements were; birth from the rock, striking water from stone with an arrow shot, the killing of the bull, Sol’s submission to Mithras, Mithras and Sol feasting on the bull, the ascent of Mithras to heaven in a chariot. A noticeable feature of this narrative (and of its regular depiction in surviving sets of relief carvings) is the complete absence of female personages[105]. Mithras has no mother, consort or children. As a form of mutual religious courtesy Mithraea commonly also hosted statues to non-Mithraic divinities, and feminine gods were not excluded from this, but in the main Mithraic iconographic sequence only the figure of Luna is presented as feminine, and she is not depicted as interacting with Mithras or participating in the action of the narrative in any way.

From this, and from the evidence of membership lists, it is generally believed that the cult was for men only. It has recently been suggested by one scholar that "women were involved with Mithraic groups in at least some locations of the empire."[106] Soldiers were strongly represented amongst Mithraists; and also merchants, customs officials and minor bureaucrats. Few, if any, initiates came from leading aristocratic or senatorial families until the ‘pagan revival’ of the mid 4th century; but there were always considerable numbers of freedmen and slaves .[107].

Mithraic Ethics

Clauss suggests that a statement by Porphyry that people initiated into the Lion grade must keep their hands pure from everything that brings pain and harm and is impure means that moral demands were made upon members of congregations.[108]. A passage in the Caesares of Julian the Apostate refers to "commandments of Mithras".[109]Tertullian, in his treatise ‘On the Military Crown’ records that Mithraists in the army were officially excused from wearing celebratory coronets; on the basis that the Mithraic initiation ritual included refusing a proffered crown, because "their only crown was Mithras".[110]

Mithras and other gods

 Mithras in Comparative Mythology

Syncretism was a feature of Roman paganism, and the cult of Mithras was part of this. Almost all Mithraea contain statues dedicated to gods of other cults, and it is common to find inscriptions dedicated to Mithras in other sanctuaries, especially those of Jupiter Dolichenus.[111] Mithraism was not an alternative to other pagan religions, but rather a particular way of practising pagan worship; and many Mithraic initiates can also be found worshipping in the civic religion, and as initiates of other mystery cults.[112] Although modern scholarship refers to Mithraic initiates as Mithraists, no equivalent term is found in antique Mithraic texts; Mithraic congregations appear to have needed no general term to distinguish their own members.

Mithraism and Christianity

Mithras riding bull

The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithraism is based on a remark in the 2nd century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion rite.[113] Based upon this, Ernest Renan in 1882 set forth a vivid depiction of two rival religions: "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic,"[114] Edwin M. Yamauchi, a Christian apologist, makes the claim that Renan’s work was "published nearly 150 years ago, [and] has no value as a source. He [Renan] knew very little about Mithraism…"[115]


  1. ^ Commodian, Instructiones 1.13: "The unconquered one was born from a rock, if he is regarded as a god."
  2. ^ a b Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p. xxi: "we possess virtually no theological statements either by Mithraists themselves or by other writers."
  3. ^ Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum tells us of both writers.
  4. ^ Gordon, Richard L. (1978). "The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection". Journal of Mithraic Studies II: 148–174.. p. 160: "The usual western nominative form of Hithras’ name in the mysteries ended in -s, as we can see from the one authentic dedication in the nominative, recut over a dedication to Sarapis (463, Terme de Caracalla), and from occasional grammatical errors such as deo inviato Metras (1443). But it is probable that Euboulus and Pallas at least used the name Mithra as an indeclinable (ap. Porphyry,De abstinentia II.56 and IV.16)."
  5. ^ a b Beck, Roger (2002). "Mithraism". Encyclopædia Iranica. Costa Mesa: Mazda Pub. Retrieved 2007-10-28.
  6. ^ See detailed discussion of possible origins below.
  7. ^ Clauss, Manfred (2000). Gordon, Richard (trans.). ed. The Roman cult of Mithras. Edinburgh University Press.ISBN 074861396X.
  8. ^ Beck, R., “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of their Genesis”, Journal of Roman Studies, 1998, 115-128. p. 118.
  9. ^ "Beck on Mithraism", pp. 34–35. Online here.
  10. ^ Gordon, Richard L. (1978). "The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection". Journal of Mithraic Studies II: 148–174.. Online here.
  11. ^ Gordon, Richard L. (1978). "The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection". Journal of Mithraic Studies II: 148–174.. Online here CIMRM 362 a , b = el l, VI 732 = Moretti, lGUR I 179: "Soli | Invicto Mithrae | T . Flavius Aug. lib. Hyginus | Ephebianus | d . d." – but the Greek title is just "`Hliwi Mithrai". The name "Flavius" for an imperial freedman dates it between 70-136 AD. The Greek section refers to a pater of the cult named Lollius Rufus, evidence of the existence of the rank system at this early date.
  12. ^ Gordon, Richard L. (1978). "The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection". Journal of Mithraic Studies II: 148–174. p. 150.
  13. ^ C. M. Daniels, "The Roman army and the spread of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, 1975, Manchester UP, pp.249-274. "The considerable movement [of civil servants and military] throughout the empire was of great importance to Mithraism, and even with the very fragmentary and inadequate evidence that we have it is clear that the movement of troops was a major factor in the spread of the cult. Traditionally there are two geographical regions where Mithraism first struck root: Italy and the Danube. Italy I propose to omit, as the subject needs considerable discussion, and the introduction of the cult there, as witnessed by its early dedicators, seems not to have been military. Before we turn to the Danube, however, there is one early event (rather than geographical location) which should perhaps be mentioned briefly in passing. This is the supposed arrival of the cult in Italy as a result of Pompey the Great’s defeat of Cicilian pirates, who practiced ‘strange sacrifices of their own… and celebrated certain secret rites, amongst which those of Mithras continue to the present time, have been first instituted by them’. (ref Plutarch, "Pompey" 24-25) Suffice it to say that there is neither archaelogical nor allied evidence for the arrival of Mithraism in the west at that time, nor is there any ancient literary reference, either contemporary or later. If anything, Plutarch’s mention carefully omits making the point that the cult was introduced into Italy at that time or by the pirates. Turning to the Danube, the earliest dedication from that region is an altar to Mitrhe (sic) set up by C. Sacidus Barbarus, a centurion of XV Appolinaris, stationed at the time at Carnuntum in Pannonia (Deutsch-Altenburg, Austria). The movements of this legion are particularly informative." The article then goes on to say that XV Appolinaris was originally based at Carnuntum, but between 62-71 transferred to the east, first in the Armenian campaign, and then to put down the Jewish uprising. Then 71- 86 back in Carnuntum, then 86-105 intermittently in the Dacian wars, then 105-114 back in Carnuntum, and finally moved to Cappadocia in 114.
  14. ^ C. M. Daniels, "The Roman army and the spread of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, 1975, Manchester UP, p. 263. The first dateable Mithraeum outside italy is from Böckingen on the Neckar, where a centurion of the legion VIII Augustus dedicated two altars, one to Mithras and the other (dated 148) to Apollo.
  15. ^ Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158. p.153: "At present this is the only Mithraeum known in Roman Palestine." p. 154: "It is difficult to assign an exact date to the founding of the Caesarea Maritima Mithraeum. No dedicatory plaques have been discovered that might aid in the dating. The lamps found with the taurectonemedallion are from the end of the first century to the late third century A.D. Other pottery and coins from the vault are also from this era. Therefore it is speculated that this Mithraeum developed toward the end of the first century and remained active until the late third century. This matches the dates assigned to the Dura-Europos and the Sidon Mithraea."
  16. ^ Vermaseren, M.J., Mithras: the Secret God, p. 29: "One other point of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century AD, and even the more extensive investigations at Pompeii, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in AD 79, have not produced a single image of the god."
  17. ^ Beskow, Per, The routes of early Mithraism, in Études mithriaques Ed.Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin. p.14: "Another possible piece of evidence is offered by five terracotta plaques with a tauroctone, found in Crimea and taken into the records of Mithraic monuments by Cumont and Vermaseren. If they are Mithraic, they are certainly the oldest known representations of Mithras tauroctone; the somewhat varying dates given by Russian archaeologists will set the beginning of the first century C.E. as a terminus ad quem, which is also said to have been confirmed by the stratigraphic conditions." Note 20 gives the publication as W. Blawatsky / G. Kolchelenko, Le culte de Mithra sur la cote spetentrionale de la Mer Noire, Leiden 1966, p.14f. See also Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.156-7 which merely mentions the date and presumes that the deity is Mithras-Attis.
  18. ^ …the area [the Crimea] is of interest mainly because of the terracotta plaques from Kerch (five, of which two are in CIMRM as nos 11 and 12). These show a bull-killing figure and their probable date (second half of first-century BC to first half of first AD) would make them the earliest tauroctonies — if it is Mithras that they portray. Their iconography is significantly different from that of the standard tauroctony (e.g. in the Attis-like exposure of the god’s genitals). Roger Beck, Mithraism since Franz Cumont, Aufsteig und Niedergang der romischen Welt II 17.4 (1984), p. 2019
  19. ^ Beskow continues: "The plaques are typical Bosporan terracottas… At the same time it must be admitted that the plaques have some strange features which make it debateable if this is really Mithra(s). Most striking is the fact that his genitals are visible as they are in the iconography of Attis, which is accentuated by a high anaxyrides. Instead of the tunic and flowing cloak he wears a kind of jacket, buttoned over the breast with only one button, perhaps the attempt of a not so skillful artist to depict a cloak. The bull is small and has a hump and the tauroctone does not plunge his knife into the flank of the bull but holds it lifted. The nudity gives it the character of a fertility god and if we want to connect it directly with the Mithraic mysteries it is indeed embarrassing that the first one of these plaques was found in a woman’s tomb." Roger Beck,Mithraism since Franz Cumont, Aufsteig und Niedergang der romischen Welt II 17.4 (1984), p. 2019: "Their iconography is significantly different from that of the standard tauroctony (e.g. in the Attis-like exposure of the god’s genitals)." Clauss, p.156: "He is grasping one of the bull’s horns with his left hand, and wrenching back its head; the right arm is raised to deliver the death-blow. So far, this god must be Mithras. But in sharp contrast with the usual representations, he is dressed in a jacket-like garment, fastened at the chest with a brooch, which leaves his genitals exposed – the iconography typical of Attis."
  20. ^ Statius, Thebaid (Book i. 719,720): "Mithras twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave."
  21. ^ Dio, Cassius, Epitome of Book 63, 5:2.
  22. ^ C.M.Daniels, "The role of the Roman army in the spread and practice of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnells (ed) Mithraic Studies: proceedings of the first International congress of Mithraic Studies Manchester university press (1975), vol. 2, p. 250: "Traditionally there are two geographical regions where Mithraism first struck root in the Roman empire: Italy and the Danube. Italy I propose to omit, as the subject needs considerable discussion, and the introduction of the cult there, as witnessed by its early dedicators, seems not to have been military. Before we turn to the Danube, however, there is one early event (rather than geographical location) which should perhaps be mentioned briefly in passing. This is the supposed arrival of the cult in Italy as a result of Pompey the Great’s defeat of the Cilician pirates, who practised ‘strange sacrifices of their own … and celebrated certain secret rites, amongst which those of Mithra continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them’. Suffice it to say that there is neither archaeological nor allied evidence for the arrival of Mithraism in the West at that time, nor is there any ancient literary reference, either contemporary or later. If anything, Plutarch’s mention carefully omits making the point that the cult was introduced into Italy at that time or by the pirates."
  23. ^ Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, 6: "For according to Eubulus, Zoroaster first of all among the neighbouring mountains of Persia, consecrated a natural cave, florid and watered with fountains, in honour of Mithras the father of all things: a cave in the opinion of Zoroaster bearing a resemblance of the world fabricated by Mithras. But the things contained in the cavern, being disposed by certain intervals, according to symmetry and order, were symbols of the elements and climates of the world."
  24. ^ Turcan, Robert, Mithras Platonicus, Leiden, 1975, via Beck, R.Merkelbach’s Mithras p. 301-2.
  25. ^ Beck, R. Merkelbach’s Mithras p. 308 n. 37.
  26. ^ Beck, R. "Merkelbach’s Mithras" in Phoenix 41.3 (1987) p. 298.
  27. ^ John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" inMithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 303-4: "Nevertheless we would not be justified in swinging to the opposite extreme from Cumont and Campbell and denying all connection between Mithraism and Iran."
  28. ^ John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" inMithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 303-4: "Since Cumont’s reconstruction of the theology underlying the reliefs in terms of the Zoroastrian myth of creation depends upon the symbolic expression of the conflict of good and evil, we must now conclude that his reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography. What, then, do the reliefs depict? And how can we proceed in any study of Mithraism? I would accept with R. Gordon that Mithraic scholars must in future start with the Roman evidence, not by outlining Zoroastrian myths and then making the Roman iconography fit that scheme. … Unless we discover Euboulus’ history of Mithraism we are never likely to have conclusive proof for any theory. Perhaps all that can be hoped for is a theory which is in accordance with the evidence and commends itself by (mere) plausibility."
  29. ^ John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" inMithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 292: "Indeed, one can go further and say that the portrayal of Mithras given by Cumont is not merely unsupported by Iranian texts but is actually in serious conflict with known Iranian theology. Cumont reconstructs a primordial life of the god on earth, but such a concept is unthinkable in terms of known, specifically Zoroastrian, Iranian thought where the gods never, and apparently never could, live on earth. To interpret Roman Mithraism in terms of Zoroastrian thought and to argue for an earthly life of the god is to combine irreconcilables. If it is believed that Mithras had a primordial life on earth, then the concept of the god has changed so fundamentally that the Iranian background has become virtually irrelevant."
  30. ^ R.L.Gordon, "Franz Cumont and the doctrines of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnells, Mithraic studies, vol. 1, p. 215 f
  31. ^ Boyce, Mary (2001). "Mithra the King and Varuna the Master". Festschrift für Helmut Humbach zum 80 (Trier: WWT).pp. 243,n.18
  32. ^ Beck, Roger B. (2004). Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works With New Essays. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0754640817., p. 28: "Since the 1970s scholars of western Mithraism have generally agreed that Cumont’s master narrative of east-west transfer is unsustainable;" although he adds that "recent trends in the scholarship on Iranian religion, by modifying the picture of that religion prior to the birth of the western mysteries, now render a revised Cumontian scenario of east-west transfer and continuities now viable."
  33. ^ Martin, Luther H. (2004). "Foreword". in Beck, Roger B. (2004). Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works With New Essays. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0754640817., p. xiv.
  34. ^ Beck, R., 2002: "Discontinuity’s weaker form of argument postulates re-invention among and for the denizens of the Roman empire (or certain sections thereof), but re-invention by a person or persons of some familiarity with Iranian religion in a form current on its western margins in the first century CE. Merkelbach (1984: pp. 75-7), expanding on a suggestion of M.P. Nilsson, proposes such a founder from eastern Anatolia, working in court circles in Rome. So does Beck 1998, with special focus on the dynasty of Commagene (see above). Jakobs 1999 proposes a similar scenario."
  35. ^ Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras, Konigstein, 1984, ch. 75-7
  36. ^ Beck, R., "Merkelbach’s Mithras", p. 304, 306.
  37. ^ Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158. p.156:"Beyond these three Mithraea [in Syria and Palestine], there are only a handful of objects from Syria that may be identified with Mithraism. Archaeological evidence of Mithraism in Syria is therefore in marked contrast to the abundance of Mithraea and materials that have been located in the rest of the Roman Empire. Both the frequency and the quality of Mithraic materials is greater in the rest of the empire. Even on the western frontier in Britain, archaeology has produced rich Mithraic materials, such as those found at Walbrook. If one accepts Cumont’s theory that Mithraism began in Iran, moved west through Babylon to Asia Minor, and then to Rome, one would expect that the religion left its traces in those locations. Instead, archaeology indicates that Roman Mithraism had its epicenter in Rome. Wherever its ultimate place of origin may have been, the fully developed religion known as Mithraism seems to have begun in Rome and been carried to Syria by soldiers and merchants. None of the Mithraic materials or temples in Roman Syria except the Commagene sculpture bears any date earlier than the late first or early second century. [30. Mithras, identified with a Phrygian cap and the nimbus about his head, is depicted in colossal statuary erected by King Antiochus I of Commagene, 69-34 B.C.. (see Vermaseren,CIMRM 1.53-56). However, there are no other literary or archaeological evidences to indicate that the religion of Mithras as it was known among the Romans in the second to fourth centuries A.D. was practiced in Commagene]. While little can be proved from silence, it seems that the relative lack of archaeological evidence from Roman Syria would argue against the traditional theories for the origins of Mithraism."
  38. ^ Ulansey, D., The origins of the Mithraic mysteries", p. 77f.
  39. ^ Ware, James R.; Kent, Roland G. (1924). "The Old Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III".Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 55: 52. doi:10.2307/283007. pp. 52–61.
  40. ^ Gordon, Richard L. (1978). "The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection". Journal of Mithraic Studies II: 148–174.. pp.150-151: "The first important expansion of the mysteries in the Empire seems to have occurred relatively rapidly late in the reign of Antoninus Pius and under Marcus Aurelius (9) . By that date, it is clear, the mysteries were fully institutionalised and capable of relatively stereotyped self-reproduction through the medium of an agreed, and highly complex, symbolic system reduced in iconography and architecture to a readable set of ‘signs’. Yet we have good reason to believe that the establishment of at least some of those signs is to be dated at least as early as the Flavian period or in the very earliest years of the second century. Beyond that we cannot go…"
  41. ^ Beck, religion., Merkelbach’s Mithras, p.299; Clauss, R., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 25: "… the astonishing spread of the religion in the later second and early third centuries AD … This extraordinary expansion, documented by the archaeological monuments…"
  42. ^ Clauss, R., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 25, referring to Porphyry, De Abstinentia, 2.56 and 4.16.3 (for Pallas) and De antro nympharum 6 (for Euboulus and his history).
  43. ^ Loeb, D. Magie (1932). Scriptores Historiae Augustae: Commodus. pp. IX.6: Sacra Mithriaca homicidio vero polluit, cum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat "He desecrated the rites of Mithras with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror".
  44. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 24: "The cult of Mithras never became one of those supported by the state with public funds, and was never admitted to the official list of festivals celebrated by the state and army – at any rate as far as the latter is known to us from the Feriale Duranum, the religious calendar of the units at Dura-Europos in Coele Syria;" [where there was a Mithraeum] "the same is true of all the other mystery cults too." He adds that at the individual level, various individuals did hold roles both in the state religions and the priesthood of Mithras.
  45. ^ Beck, R., Merkelbach’s Mithras, p. 299.
  46. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 29-30: "Mithras also found a place in the ‘pagan revival’ that occurred, particularly in the western empire, in the latter half of the fourth century AD. For a brief period, especially in Rome, the cult enjoyed, along with others, a last efflorescence, for which we have evidence from among the highest circles of the senatorial order. One of these senators was Rufius Caeionius Sabinus, who in 377 dedicated an altar" to a long list of gods including Mithras.
  47. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, pp. 31-32.
  48. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.171.
  49. ^ Cumont, Franz (1903). McCormack, Thomas J. (trans.). ed.The Mysteries of Mithra. Chicago: Open Court.ISBN 0486203239. pp. 206: "A few clandestine conventicles may, with stubborn persistence, have been held in the subterranean retreats of the palaces. The cult of the Persian god possibly existed as late as the fifth century in certain remote cantons of the Alps and the Vosges. For example, devotion to the Mithraic rites long persisted in the tribe of the Anauni, masters of a flourishing valley, of which a narrow defile closed the mouth." This is unreferenced; but the French text in Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra tom. 1, p. 348 has a footnote. The French text is referenced and discussed by Roger Pearse, Cumont on the end of the cult of Mithraswhich translates it and discusses the sources which are too long to include here.
  50. ^ David Ulansey, The origins of the Mithraic mysteries, p. 6: "Although the iconography of the cult varied a great deal from temple to temple, there is one element of the cult’s iconography which was present in essentially the same form in every mithraeum and which, moreover, was clearly of the utmost importance to the cult’s ideology; namely the so-called tauroctony, or bull-slaying scene, in which the god Mithras, accompanied by a series of other figures, is depicted in the act of killing the bull."
  51. ^ a b Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.77.
  52. ^ Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p.98-9. An image search for "tauroctony" will show many examples of the variations.
  53. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.74.
  54. ^ J. R. Hinnells, "The Iconography of Cautes and Cautopates: the Data," Journal of Mithraic Studies 1, 1976, pp. 36-67. See also William W. Malandra, Cautes and CautopatesEncyclopedia Iranica article
  55. ^ The Greater [Bundahishn] IV.19-20: "19. He let loose Greed, Needfulness, [Pestilence,] Disease, Hunger, Illness, Vice and Lethargy on the body of , Gav’ and Gayomard. 20. Before his coming to the ‘Gav’, Ohrmazd gave the healing Cannabis, which is what one calls ‘banj’, to the’ Gav’ to eat, and rubbed it before her eyes, so that her discomfort, owing to smiting, [sin] and injury, might decrease; she immediately became feeble and ill, her milk dried up, and she passed away."
  56. ^ Hinnels, John R.. "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene".Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Mithraic Studies. Manchester UP. pp. II.290–312., p. 291
  57. ^ Ulansey, David (1989). The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195054024. (1991 revised edition)
  58. ^ Porphyry, De Antro nympharum 10: "Since, however, a cavern is an image and symbol of the world…"
  59. ^ Porphyry, De antro nympharum 2: "For, as Eubulus says, Zoroaster was the first who consecrated in the neighbouring mountains of Persia, a spontaneously produced cave, florid, and having fountains, in honour of Mithra, the maker and father of all things; |12 a cave, according to Zoroaster, bearing a resemblance of the world, which was fabricated by Mithra. But the things contained in the cavern being arranged according to commensurate intervals, were symbols of the mundane elements and climates.
  60. ^ Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158, p.154
  61. ^ Beck, Roger, "Astral Symbolism in the Tauroctony: A statistical demonstration of the Extreme Improbability of Unintended Coincidence in the Selection of Elements in the Composition" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 257.
  62. ^ Beck, Roger, "The Rise and Fall of Astral Identifications of the Tauroctonous Mithras" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 236.
  63. ^ Ulansey, D., The origins of the Mithraic mysteries", p. 25-39.
  64. ^ Michael P. Speidel, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God, Brill Academic Publishers (August 1997), ISBN 109004060553
  65. ^ a b Beck, Roger, "In the place of the lion: Mithras in the tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 270-276.
  66. ^ a b Beck, Roger, "In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 286-287].
  67. ^ a b Beck, Roger (2007). The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. London: Oxford University Press.ISBN 0199216134., p. 27-28.
  68. ^ a b von Gall, Hubertus, "The Lion-headed and the Human-headed God in the Mithraic Mysteries," in Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin ed. Études mithriaques, 1978, pp. 511
  69. ^ Jackson, Howard M., "The Meaning and Function of the Leontocephaline in Roman Mithraism" in Numen, Vol. 32, Fasc. 1 (Jul., 1985), pp. 17-45
  70. ^ Beck, R, Beck on Mithraism, pp. 194
  71. ^ J. Lebegue, "Une inscription mithriaque du musée de Pesaro",Revue archaeologique, 3rd series, t. 14, pp. 64-9, 1889. See alsoblog post with inscription, translation, and summary of Lebegue’s argument.
  72. ^ Meyer, Marvin W. (1976) The "Mithras Liturgy".
  73. ^ Francis, E.D. (1971). Hinnells, John R.. ed. “Mithraic graffiti from Dura-Europos,” in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 424–445.
  74. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.115.
  75. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.43.
  76. ^ Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 41. ISBN 0674033876.
  77. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.49.
  78. ^ Price S & Kearns E, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, p.568.
  79. ^ Beck, Roger (2007). The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. London: Oxford University Press.ISBN 0199216134., p. 85-87.
  80. ^ "Beck on Mithraism", p. 16
  81. ^ Hinnells, John R., ed (1971). “Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. plate 25
  82. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.139.
  83. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, pages 26 and 27.
  84. ^ Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0674033876.
  85. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.xxi.
  86. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.73.
  87. ^ Price S & Kearns E, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, p.493.
  88. ^ Price S & Kearns E, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, p.355.
  89. ^ Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.102. The Suda reference given is 3: 394, M 1045 Adler.
  90. ^ Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.102. The Gregory reference given is to Oratio 4. 70.
  91. ^ Jerome, Letters 107, ch. 2 (To Laeta)
  92. ^ M.Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.132-133
  93. ^ M.Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.133-138
  94. ^ Clauss, Manfred (1990). "Die sieben Grade des Mithras-Kultes". ZPE 82: 183–194.
  95. ^ Griffiths, Alison. "Mithraism in the private and public lives of 4th-c. senators in Rome". EJMS.
  96. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.103.
  97. ^ M. Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 42: "That the hand-shaken might make their vows joyfully forever"
  98. ^ M. Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 105: "the followers of Mithras were the ‘initiates of the theft of the bull, united by the handshake of the illustrious father." (Err. prof. relig. 5.2)
  99. ^ a b "Beck on Mithraism", pp. 288-289
  100. ^ Martin, Luther H. (2004). "Ritual Competence and Mithraic Ritual". in Wilson, Brian C. (2004). Religion as a human capacity: a festschrift in honor of E. Thomas Lawson. BRILL., p. 257
  101. ^ Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.62-101.
  102. ^ Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.33.
  103. ^ David, Jonathan (2000). "The Exclusion of Women in the Mithraic Mysteries: Ancient or Modern?". Numen 47 (2): 121–141. doi:10.1163/156852700511469., at p. 121.
  104. ^ Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.39.
  105. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.144-145: "Justin’s charge does at least make clear that Mithraic commandments did exist."
  106. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.144, referencingCaesares 336C in the translation of W.C.Wright. Hermes addresses Julian: "As for you . . . , I have granted you to know Mithras the Father. Keep his commandments, thus securing for yourself an anchor-cable and safe mooring all through your life, and, when you must leave the world, having every confidence that the god who guides you will be kindly disposed."
  107. ^ Tertullian, De Corona Militis, 15.3
  108. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.158.
  109. ^ Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 49. ISBN 0674033876.
  110. ^ Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 66: "For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn."
  111. ^ Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579: "On peut dire que, si le christianisme eût été arrêté dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eût été mithriaste."
  112. ^ Edwin M. Yamauchi cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.175

Further reading

  • Beck, Roger, "The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998 (1998) , pp. 115–128.
  • Beck, Roger, "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp. 2002–115. Important summary of the changes to Mithras scholarship.
  • Clauss, Manfred, The Roman cult of Mithras: the god and his mysteries, Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 198. ISBN 0-415-92977-6 here. An excellent concise view of the current consensus.
  • Cumont, Franz, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra : pub. avec une introduction critique, 2 vols. 1894-6. Vol. 1 is an introduction, now obsolete. Vol. 2 is a collection of primary data, online at here, and still of some value.
  • Gordon, Richard, Frequently asked questions about the cult of Mithras. Some common misconceptions, and the comments of a professional Mithras scholar.
  • Hinnells, John (ed.), Proceedings of The First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press (1975).
  • Turcan, Robert, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000. Academic study.
  • Ulansey, David, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1989. An influential but non-mainstream account.
  • Vermaseren, M.J., Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1956, 2 vols. The standard collection of Mithraic reliefs.

External links

Categories: Mithraic Mysteries | Ancient Roman religion | Mystery religions | Paganism and Christianity





IN THAT unknown epoch when the ancestors of the Persians were still united with those of the Hindus, they were already worshippers of Mithra. The hymns of the Vedas celebrated his name, as did those of the Avesta, and despite the differences obtaining between the two theological systems of which these books were the expression, the Vedic Mitra and the Iranian Mithra have preserved so many traits of resemblance that it is impossible to entertain any doubt concerning their common origin. Both religions saw in him a god of light, invoked together with Heaven, bearing in the one case the name of Varuna and in the other that of Ahura; in ethics he was recognized as the protector of truth, the antagonist of falsehood and error. But the sacred poetry of India has preserved of him an obscured memory only. A single fragment, and even that partially effaced, is all that has been specially dedicated to him. He appears mainly in incidental allusions,–the silent witnesses of his ancient grandeur. Still, though his physiognomy is not so distinctly

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limned in the Sanskrit literature as it is in the Zend writings, the faintness of its outlines is not sufficient to disguise the primitive identity of his character.

According to a recent theory, this god, with whom the peoples of Europe were unacquainted, was not a member of the ancient Aryan pantheon. Mitra-Varuna, and the five other Adityas celebrated by the Vedas, likewise Mithra-Ahura and the Amshaspands, who, according to the Avestan conception surround the Creator, are on this theory nothing but the sun, the moon, and the planets, the worship of which was adopted by the Indo-Iranians "from a neighboring people, their superiors in the knowledge of the starry firmament," who could be none other than the Accadian or Semitic inhabitants of Babylonia. 1 But this hypothetical adoption, if it really took place, must have occurred in a prehistoric epoch, and, without attempting to dissipate the obscurity of these primitive times, it will be sufficient for us to state that the tribes of Iran never ceased to worship Mithra from their first assumption of worldly power till the day of their conversion to Islam.

In the Avesta, Mithra is the genius of the celestial light. He appears before sunrise on the rocky summits of the mountains; during the day he traverses the wide firmament in his chariot drawn by four white horses, and when

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night falls he still illumines with flickering glow the surface of the earth, "ever waking, ever watchful." He is neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, but with "his hundred ears and his hundred eyes" watches constantly the world. Mithra hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him. By a natural transition he became for ethics the god of truth and integrity, the one that was invoked in solemn oaths, that pledged the fulfilment of contracts, that punished perjurers.

The light that dissipates darkness restores happiness and life on earth; the heat that accompanies it fecundates nature. Mithra is "the lord of wide pastures," the one that renders them fertile. "He giveth increase, he giveth abundance, he giveth cattle, he giveth progeny and life." He scatters the waters of the heavens and causes the plants to spring forth from the ground; on them that honor him, he bestows health of body, abundance of riches, and talented posterity. For he is the dispenser not only of material blessings but of spiritual advantages as well. His is the beneficent genius that accords peace of conscience, wisdom, and honor along with prosperity, and causes harmony to reign among all his votaries. The devas, who inhabit the places of darkness, disseminate on earth along with barrenness and suffering all manner of vice and impurity. Mithra, "wakeful and sleepless, protects the creation of Mazda" against

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their machinations. He combats unceasingly the spirits of evil; and the iniquitous that serve them feel also the terrible visitations of his wrath. From his celestial eyrie he spies out his enemies; armed in fullest panoply he swoops down upon them, scatters and slaughters them. He desolates and lays waste the homes of the wicked, he annihilates the tribes and the nations that are hostile to him. On the other hand he is the puissant ally of the faithful in their warlike expeditions. The blows of their enemies "miss their mark, for Mithra, sore incensed, receives them"; and he assures victory unto them that "have had fit instruction in the Good, that honor him and offer him the sacrificial libations." 1

This character of god of hosts, which has been the predominating trait of Mithra from the days of the Achæmenides, undoubtedly became accentuated in the period of confusion during which the Iranian tribes were still at war with one another; but it is after all only the development of the ancient conception of struggle between day and night. In general, the picture that the Avesta offers us of the old Aryan deity, is, as we have already said, similar to that which the Vedas have drawn in less marked outlines, and it hence follows that Mazdaism left its main primitive foundation unaltered.


Still, though the Avestan hymns furnish the

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distinctest glimpses of the true physiognomy of the ancient god of light, the Zoroastrian system, in adopting his worship, has singularly lessened his importance. As the price of his admission to the Avestan Heaven, he was compelled to submit to its laws. Theology had placed Ahura-Mazda on the pinnacle of the celestial hierarchy, and thenceforward it could recognize none as his peer. Mithra was not even made one of the six Amshaspands that aided the Supreme Deity in governing the universe. He was relegated, with the majority of the ancient divinities of nature, to the host of lesser genii or yazatas created by Mazda. He was associated with some of the deified abstractions which the Persians had learned to worship. As protector of warriors, he received for his companion, Verethraghna, or Victory; as the defender of the truth, he was associated with the pious Sraosha, or Obedience to divine law, with Rashnu, Justice, with Arshtât, Rectitude. As the tutelar genius of prosperity, he is invoked with Ashi-Vañuhi, Riches, and with Pâreñdî, Abundance. In company with Sraosha and Rashnu, he protects the soul of the just against the demons that seek to drag it down to Hell, and under their guardianship it soars aloft to Paradise. This Iranian belief gave birth to the doctrine of redemption by Mithra, which we find developed in the Occident.

At the same time, his cult was subjected to

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a rigorous ceremonial, conforming to the Mazdean liturgy. Sacrificial offerings were made to him of "small cattle and large, and of flying birds." These immolations were preceded or accompanied with the usual libations of the juice of Haoma, and with the recitation of ritual prayers,–the bundle of sacred twigs (baresman) always in the hand. But before daring to approach the altar, the votary was obliged to purify himself by repeated ablutions and flagellations. These rigorous prescriptions recall the rite of baptism and the corporeal tests imposed on the Roman neophytes before initiation.

Mithra, thus, was adopted in the theological system of Zoroastrianism; a convenient place was assigned to him in the divine hierarchy; he was associated with companions of unimpeachable orthodoxy; homage was rendered to him on the same footing with the other genii. But his puissant personality had not bent lightly to the rigorous restrictions that had been imposed upon him, and there are to be found in the sacred text vestiges of a more ancient conception, according to which he occupied in the Iranian pantheon a much more elevated position. Several times he is invoked in company with Ahura: the two gods form a pair, for the light of Heaven and Heaven itself are in their nature inseparable. Furthermore, if it is said that Ahura created Mithra as he did all things, it is likewise said

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that he made him just as great and worthy as himself. Mithra is indeed a yazata, but he is also the most potent and most glorious of the yazata. "Ahura-Mazda established him to maintain and watch over all this moving world." 1 It is through the agency of this ever-victorious warrior that the Supreme Being destroys the demons and causes even the Spirit of Evil, Ahriman himself, to tremble.

Compare these texts with the celebrated passage in which Plutarch 2 expounds the dualistic doctrine of the Persians: Oromazes dwells in the domain of eternal light "as far above the sun as the sun is distant from the earth"; Ahriman reigns in the realm of darkness, and Mithra occupies an intermediary place between them. The beginning of the Bundahish 3 expounds a quite similar theory, save that in place of Mithra it is the air (Vayu) that is placed between Ormazd and Ahriman. The contradiction is only one of terms, for according to Iranian ideas the air is indissolubly conjoined with the light, which it is thought to support. In fine, a supreme god, enthroned in the empyrean above the stars, where a perpetual serenity exists; below him an active deity, his emissary and chief of the celestial armies in their ceaseless combat

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with the Spirit of Darkness, who from the bowels of Hell sends forth his devas to the surface of the earth,–this is the religious conception, far simpler than that of Zoroastrianism, which appears to have been generally accepted among the subjects of the Achæmenides.

The conspicuous rôle that the religion of the ancient Persians accorded to Mithra is attested by a multitude of proofs. He alone, with the goddess Anâhita, is invoked in the inscriptions of Artaxerxes alongside of Ahura-Mazda. The "great kings" were certainly very closely attached to him, and looked upon him as their special protector. It is he whom they call to bear witness to the truth of their words, and whom they invoke on the eve of battle. They unquestionably regarded him as the god that brought victory to monarchs; he it was, they thought, who caused that mysterious light to descend upon them which, according to the Mazdean belief, is a guaranty of perpetual success to princes, whose authority it consecrates.

The nobility followed the example of the sovereign. The great number of theophorous, or god-bearing, names, compounded with that of Mithra, which were borne by their members from remotest antiquity, is proof of the fact that the reverence for this god was general among them.

Mithra occupied a large place in the official cult. In the calendar the seventh month was


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dedicated to him and also doubtless the sixteenth day of each month. At the time of his festival, the king, if we may believe Ctesias, 1 was permitted to indulge in copious libations in his honor and to execute the sacred dances. Certainly this festival was the occasion of solemn sacrifices and stately ceremonies. The Mithrakana were famed throughout all Hither Asia, and in their form Mihragân were destined, in modern times, to be celebrated at the commencement of winter by Mussulman Persia. The fame of Mithra extended to the borders of the Ægean Sea; he is the only Iranian god whose name was popular in ancient Greece, and this fact alone proves how deeply he was venerated by the nations of the great neighboring empire.

The religion observed by the monarch and by the entire aristocracy that aided him in governing his vast territories could not possibly remain confined to a few provinces of his empire. We know that Artaxerxes Ochus had caused statues of the goddess Anâhita to be erected in his different capitals, at Babylon, Damascus, and Sardis, as well as at Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis. Babylon, in particular, being the winter residence of the sovereigns, was the seat of a numerous body of official clergy, called Magi, who sat in authority over the indigenous priests. The

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prerogatives that the imperial protocol guaranteed to this official clergy could not render them exempt from the influence of the powerful sacerdotal caste that flourished beside them. The erudite and refined theology of the Chaldæans was thus superposed on the primitive Mazdean belief, which was rather a congeries of traditions than a well -established body of definite dogmas. The legends of the two religions were assimilated, their divinities -were identified, and the Semitic worship of the stars (astrolatry), the monstrous fruit of long-continued scientific observations, became amalgamated with the nature-myths of the Iranians. Ahura-Mazda was confounded with Bel, who reigned over the heavens; Anâhita was likened to Ishtar, who presided over the planet Venus; while Mithra became the Sun, Shamash. As Mithra in Persia, so Shamash in Babylon is the god of justice; like him, he also appears in the east, on the summits of mountains, and pursues his daily course across the heavens in a resplendent chariot; like him, finally, he too gives victory to the arms of warriors, and is the protector of kings. The transformation wrought by Semitic theories in the beliefs of the Persians was of so profound a character that, centuries after, in Rome, the original home of Mithra was not infrequently placed on the banks of the Euphrates. According to Ptolemæus, 1 this

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potent solar deity was worshipped in all the countries that stretched from India to Assyria.

But Babylon was a step only in the propagation of Mazdaism. Very early the Magi had crossed Mesopotamia and penetrated to the heart of Asia Minor. Even under the first of the Achæmenides, it appears, they established themselves in multitudes in Armenia, where the indigenous religion gradually succumbed to their cult, and also in Cappadocia, where their altars still burned in great numbers in the days of the famous geographer Strabo. They swarmed, at a very remote epoch, into distant Pontus, into Galatia, into Phrygia. In Lydia even, under the reign of the Antonines, their descendants still chanted their barbaric hymns in a sanctuary attributed to Cyrus. These communities, in Cappadocia at least, were destined to survive the triumph of Christianity and to be perpetuated until the fifth century of our era, faithfully transmitting from generation to generation their manners, usages, and modes of worship.

At first blush the fall of the empire of Darius would appear to have been necessarily fatal to these religious colonies, so widely scattered and henceforward to be severed from the country of their birth. But in point of fact it was precisely the contrary that happened, and the Magi found in the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander the Great, no less efficient protection than that which they

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enjoyed under the Great King and his satraps. After the dismemberment of the empire of Alexander (323 B.C.), there were established in Pontus, Cappadocia, Armenia, and Commagene, dynasties which the complaisant genealogists of the day feigned to trace back to the Achæmenian kings. Whether these royal houses were of Iranian extraction or not, their supposititious descent nevertheless imposed upon them the obligation of worshipping the gods of their fictitious ancestors. In opposition to the Greek kings of Pergamon and Antioch, they represented the ancient traditions in religion and politics. These princes and the magnates of their entourage took a sort of aristocratic pride in slavishly imitating the ancient masters of Asia. While not evincing outspoken hostility to other religions practised in their domains, they yet reserved especial favors for the temples of the Mazdean divinities. Oromazes (Ahura-Mazda), Omanos (Vohumano), Artagnes (Verethraghna), Anaïtis (Anâhita), and still others received their homage. But Mithra, above all, was the object of their predilection. The monarchs of these nations cherished for him a devotion that was in some measure personal, as the frequency of the name Mithradates in all their families attests. Evidently Mithra had remained for them, as he had been for Artaxerxes and Darius, the god that granted monarchs victory,–the manifestation

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and enduring guaranty of their legitimate rights.

This reverence for Persian customs, inherited from legendary ancestors, this idea that piety is the bulwark of the throne and the sole condition of success, is explicitly affirmed in the pompous inscription 1 engraved on the colossal tomb that Antiochus I., Epiphanes, of Commagene (69-34 B.C.), erected on a spur of the mountain-range Taurus, commanding a distant view of the valley of the Euphrates (Figure I). But, being a descendant by his mother of the Seleucidæ of Syria, and supposedly by his father of Darius, son of Hystaspes, the king of Commagene merged the memories of his double origin, and blended together the gods and the rites of the Persians and the Greeks, just as in his own dynasty the name of Antiochus alternated with that of Mithridates.

Similarly in the neighboring countries, the Iranian princes and priests gradually succumbed to the growing power of the Grecian civilization. Under the Achæmenides, all the different nations lying between the Pontus Euxinus and Mount Taurus were suffered by the tolerance of the central authority to practise their local cults, customs, and languages. But in the great confusion caused by the collapse of the Persian empire, all political and

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religious barriers were demolished. Heterogeneous races had suddenly come in contact with one another, and as a result Hither Asia passed through a phase of syncretism analogous

(Bas-relief of the colossal temple built by Antiochus I. of Commagene, 69-31 B.C., on the Nemrood Dagh, a spur of the Taurus Mountains. T. et M., p. 188.)

to that which is more distinctly observable under the Roman empire. The contact of all the theologies of the Orient and all the philosophies of Greece produced the most startling combinations, and the competition

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between the different creeds became exceedingly brisk. Many of the Magi, from Armenia to Phrygia and Lydia, then doubtless departed from their traditional reserve to devote themselves to active propaganda, and like the Jews of the same epoch they succeeded in gathering around them numerous proselytes. Later, when persecuted by the Christian emperors, they were obliged to revert to their quondam exclusiveness, and to relapse into a rigorism that became more and more inaccessible.

It was undoubtedly during the period of moral and religious fermentation provoked by the Macedonian conquest that Mithraism received approximately its definitive form. It was already thoroughly consolidated when it spread throughout the Roman empire. Its dogmas and its liturgic traditions must have been firmly established from the beginning of its diffusion. But unfortunately we are unable to determine precisely either the country or the period of time in which Mazdaism assumed the characteristics that distinguished it in Italy. Our ignorance of the religious movements that agitated the Orient in the Alexandrian epoch, the almost complete absence of direct testimony bearing on the history of the Iranian sects during the first three centuries before our era, are our main obstacles in obtaining certain knowledge of the development of Parseeism. The most we can do is to unravel the principal factors that combined

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to transform the religion of the Magi of Asia Minor, and endeavor to show how in different regions varying influences variously altered its original character.

In Armenia, Mazdaism had coalesced with the national beliefs of the country and also with a Semitic element imported from Syria. Mithra remained one of the principal divinities of the syncretic theology that issued from this triple influence. As in the Occident, some saw in Mithra the genius of fire, others identified him with the sun; and fantastic legends were woven about his name. He was said to have sprung from the incestuous intercourse of Ahura-Mazda with his own mother, and again to have been the offspring of a common mortal. We shall refrain from dwelling upon these and other singular myths. Their character is radically different from the dogmas accepted by the Occidental votaries of the Persian god. That peculiar admixture of disparate doctrines which constituted the religion of the Armenians appears to have had no other relationship with Mithraism than that of a partial community of origin.

In the remaining portions of Asia Minor the changes which Mazdaism underwent were far from being as profound as in Armenia. The opposition between the indigenous cults and the religion whose Iranian origin its votaries delighted in recalling, never ceased to be felt. The pure doctrine of which the worshippers

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of fire were the guardians could not reconcile itself easily with the orgies celebrated in honor of the lover of Cybele. Nevertheless, during the long centuries that the emigrant Magi lived peacefully among the autochthonous tribes, certain amalgamations of the conceptions of the two races could not help being effected. In Pontus, Mithra is represented on horseback like Men, the lunar god honored throughout the entire peninsula. In other places, he is pictured in broad, slit trousers (anaxyrides), recalling to mind the mutilation of Attis. In Lydia, Mithra-Anâhita became Sabazius-Anaïtis. Other local divinities likewise lent themselves to identification with the powerful yazata. It would appear as if the priests of these uncultured countries had endeavored to make their popular gods the compeers of those whom the princes and nobility worshipped. But we have too little knowledge of the religions of these countries to determine the precise features which they respectively derived from Parseeism or imparted to it. That there was a reciprocal influence we definitely know, but its precise scope we are unable to ascertain. Still, however superficial it may have been, 1 it certainly

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Fig. 2.

Representing a divinity on horseback resembling both Men and Mithra, and showing that in Pontus the two were identified.

a. Bronze coins. Obverse: Bust of Alexander Severus, clad in a paludamentum; head crowned with laurel. Reverse: The composite Men-Mithra in Oriental costume, wearing a Phrygian cap, and mounted on a horse that advances toward the right. In front, a flaming altar. On either side, the characteristic Mithraic torches, respectively elevated and reversed. At the right, a tree with branches overspreading the horseman. In front, a raven bending towards him. (218 A.D.)

b. A similar coin.

c. Obverse: Alexander Severus. Reverse: Men-Mithra on horseback advancing towards the right. In the foreground, a flaming altar; in the roar, a tree upon which a raven is perched.

d. A similar coin, having on its obverse the bust of Gordianus III. (T. et M., p. 190.)

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did prepare for the intimate union which was soon to be effected in the West between the Mysteries of Mithra and those of the Great Mother.

Fig. 3.

On the coins of the Scythian kings Kanerkes and Hooerkes, who reigned over Kabul and the Northwest of India from 87 to 120 A.D., the image of Mithra is found in company with those of other Persian, Greek, and Hindu gods. These coins have little direct connection with the Mysteries as they appeared in the Occident, but they merit our attention as being the only representations of Mithra which are found outside the boundaries of the Roman world.

a. Obverse: An image of King Kanerkes. Reverse: An image of Mithra.

b. The obverse has a bust of King Hooerkes, and the reverse an image of Mithra as a goddess.

c. Bust of Hooerkes with a lunar and a solar god (Mithra) on its reverse side.

d. Bust of Hooerkes, with Mithra alone on its reverse.

e, f, g. Similar coins. (T. et M., p. 186.)

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When, as the outcome of the expedition of Alexander (334-323 B.C.), the civilization of Greece spread throughout all Hither Asia, it impressed itself upon Mazdaism as far east as Bactriana. Nevertheless, Iranism, if we may employ such a designation, never surrendered to Hellenism. Iran proper soon recovered its moral autonomy, as well as its political independence; and generally speaking, the power of resistance offered by Persian traditions to an assimilation which was elsewhere easily effected is one of the most salient traits of the history of the relations of Greece with the Orient. But the Magi of Asia Minor, being much nearer to the great foci of Occidental culture, were more vividly illumined by their radiation. Without suffering themselves to be absorbed by the religion of the conquering strangers, they combined their cults with it. In order to harmonize their barbaric beliefs with the Hellenic ideas, recourse was had to the ancient practice of identification. They strove to demonstrate that the Mazdean heaven was inhabited by the same denizens as Olympus: Ahura-Mazda as Supreme Being was confounded with Zeus; Verethraghna, the victorious hero, with Heracles; Anâhita, to whom the bull was consecrated, became Artemis Tauropolos, and the identification went so far as to localize in her temples the fable of Orestes. Mithra, already regarded in Babylon as the peer of Shamash, was naturally

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Fig. 4
(Famous Borghesi bas-relief in white marble, now in the Louvre, Paris, but originally taken from the mithræum of the Capitol.)

Mithra is sacrificing the bull in the cave. The characteristic features of the Mithra monuments are all represented here: the youths with the upright and the inverted torch, the snake, the dog, the raven, Helios, the god of the sun, and Selene, the goddess of the moon. Owing to the Phrygian cap, the resemblance of the face to that of Alexander, and the imitation of the motif of the classical Greek group of Nike sacrificing a bull,–all characteristics of the Diadochian epoch,–the original of all the works of this type has been attributed to an artist of Pergamon. (T. et M., p. 194.)

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associated with Helios; but he was not subordinated to him, and his Persian name was never replaced in the liturgy by a translation, as had been the case with the other divinities worshipped in the Mysteries.

The synonomy thus speciously established

Fig. 5.

Artistic Type.

(Bas-relief, formerly in domo Andreæ Cinquinæ, now in St. Petersburg. T. et M., p. 229.)

between appellations having no relationship did not remain the exclusive diversion of the mythologists; it was attended with the grave consequence that the vague personifications conceived by the Oriental imagination now

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assumed the precise forms with which the Greek artists had invested the Olympian gods. Possibly they had never before been represented in the guise of the human form, or if images of them existed in imitation of the

Fig. 6.

Artistic Type (Second Century).

(Grand group of white marble, now in the Vatican. T. et M., p. 210)

Assyrian idols they were doubtless both grotesque and crude. In thus imparting to the Mazdean heroes all the seductiveness of the Hellenic ideal, the conception of their character was necessarily modified; and, pruned of their exotic features, they were rendered

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more readily acceptable to the Occidental peoples. One of the indispensable conditions for the success of this exotic religion in the Roman world was fulfilled when towards the second century before our era a sculptor of the school of Pergamon composed the pathetic

Fig. 7.

Early Artistic Type.

(Bas-relief of white marble, Rome, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

group of Mithra Tauroctonos, to which universal custom thenceforward reserved the place of honor in the apse of the spelæa. 1

But not only did art employ its powers to soften the repulsive features which these rude

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Mysteries might possess for minds formed in the schools of Greece; philosophy also strove to reconcile their doctrines with its teachings, or rather the Asiatic priests pretended to discover in their sacred traditions the theories of the philosophic sects. None of these sects so readily lent itself to alliance with the popular devotion as that of the Stoa, and its influence on the formation of Mithraism was profound. An ancient myth sung by the Magi is quoted by Dion Chrysostomos 1 on account of its allegorical resemblance to the Stoic cosmology; and many other Persian ideas were similarly modified by the pantheistic conceptions of the disciples of Zeno. Thinkers accustomed themselves more and more to discovering in the dogmas and liturgic usages of the Orientals the obscure reflections of an ancient wisdom, and these tendencies harmonized too much with the pretensions and the interest of the Mazdean clergy not to be encouraged by them with every means in their power.

But if philosophical speculation transformed the character of the beliefs of the Magi, investing them with a scope which they did not originally possess, its influence was nevertheless upon the whole conservative rather than revolutionary. The very fact that it invested legends which were ofttimes puerile with a symbolical significance, that it furnished

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rational explanations for usages which were apparently absurd, did much towards insuring their perpetuity. If the theological foundation of the religion was sensibly modified, its liturgic framework remained relatively fixed, and the changes wrought in the dogma were in accord with the reverence due to the ritual. The superstitious formalism of which the minute prescriptions of the Vendidad were the expression is certainly prior to the period of the Sassanids. The sacrifices which the Magi of Cappadocia offered in the time of Strabo (circa 63 B.C.-21 A.D.) are reminiscent of all the peculiarities of the Avestan liturgy. It was the same psalmodic prayers before the altar of fire; and the same bundle of sacred twigs (baresman); the same oblations of milk, oil, and honey; the same precautions lest the breath of the officiating priest should contaminate the divine flame. The inscription of Antiochus of Commagene (69-34 B.C.) in the rules that it prescribes gives evidence of a like scrupulous fidelity to the ancient Iranian customs. The king exults in having always honored the gods of his ancestors according to the tradition of the Persians and the Greeks; he expresses the desire that the priests established in the new temple shall wear the sacerdotal vestments of the same Persians, and that they shall officiate conformably to the ancient sacred custom. The sixteenth day of each month, which is to be

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specially celebrated, is not to be the birthday of the king alone, but also the day which from time immemorial was specially consecrated to Mithra. Many, many years after, another

Fig. 8.

(Bas-relief of the temple of Antiochus I. of Commagene, 69-34 B.C., on the Nemrood Dagh, a spur of the Taurus Mountains. T. et M., p. 188.)

Commagenean, Lucian of Samosata, in a passage apparently inspired by practices he had witnessed in his own country, could still deride the repeated purifications, the interminable chants, and the long Medean robes of the

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sectarians of Zoroaster. 1 Furthermore, he taunted them with being ignorant even of Greek and with mumbling an incoherent and unintelligible gibberish. 2

The conservative spirit of the Magi of Cappadocia, which bound them to the time-worn usages that had been handed down from generation to generation, abated not one jot of its power after the triumph of Christianity; and St. Basil 3 has recorded the fact of its persistence as late as the end of the fourth century. Even in Italy it is certain that the Iranian Mysteries never ceased to retain a goodly proportion of the ritual forms that Mazdaism had observed in Asia Minor time out of mind. 4 The principal innovation consisted in substituting for the Persian as the liturgic language, the Greek, and later perhaps the Latin. This reform presupposes the existence of sacred books, and it is probable that subsequently to the Alexandrian epoch the prayers and canticles that had been originally transmitted orally were committed to writing, lest their memory should fade forever. But this necessary accommodation to the new environments did not prevent Mithraism from

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preserving to the very end a ceremonial which was essentially Persian.

The Greek name of "Mysteries" which writers have applied to this religion should not mislead us. The adepts of Mithraism did not imitate the Hellenic cults in the organization of their secret societies, the esoteric doctrine of which was made known only after a succession of graduated initiations. In Persia itself the Magi constituted an exclusive caste, which appears to have been subdivided into several subordinate classes. And those of them who took up their abode in the midst of foreign nations different in language and manners were still more jealous in concealing their hereditary faith from the profane. The knowledge of their arcana gave them a lofty consciousness of their moral superiority and insured their prestige over the ignorant populations that surrounded them. It is probable that the Mazdean priesthood in Asia Minor as in Persia was primitively the hereditary attribute of a tribe, in which it was handed down from father to son; that afterwards its incumbents consented, after appropriate ceremonies of initiation, to communicate its secret dogmas to strangers, and that these proselytes were then gradually admitted to all the different ceremonies of the cult. The Iranian diaspora is comparable in this respect, as in many others, with that of the Jews. Usage soon distinguished between the different

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classes of neophytes, ultimately culminating in the establishment of a fixed hierarchy. But the complete revelation of the sacred beliefs and practices was always reserved for the privileged few; and this mystic knowledge appeared to increase in excellence in proportion as it became more occult.

All the original rites that characterized the Mithraic cult of the Romans unquestionably go back to Asiatic origins: the animal disguises used in certain ceremonies are a survival of a very widely-diffused prehistoric custom which still survives in our day; the practice of consecrating mountain caves to the god is undoubtedly a heritage of the time when temples were not yet constructed; the cruel tests imposed on the initiated recall the bloody mutilations that the servitors of Mâ and of Cybele perpetrated. Similarly, the legends of which Mithra is the hero cannot have been invented save in a pastoral epoch. These antique traditions of a primitive and crude civilization subsist in the Mysteries by the side of a subtle theology and a lofty system of ethics.

An analysis of the constituent elements of Mithraism, like a cross-section of a geological formation, shows the stratifications of this composite mass in their regular order of deposition. The basal layer of this religion, its lower and primordial stratum, is the faith of ancient Iran, from which it took its origin.

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Above this Mazdean substratum was deposited in Babylon a thick sediment of Semitic doctrines, and afterwards the local beliefs of Asia Minor added to it their alluvial deposits. Finally, a luxuriant vegetation of Hellenic ideas burst forth from this fertile soil and partly concealed from view its true original nature.

This composite religion, in which so many heterogeneous elements were welded together, is the adequate expression of the complex civilization that flourished in the Alexandrian epoch in Armenia, Cappadocia, and Pontus. If Mithridates Eupator had realized his ambitious dreams, this Hellenized Parseeism would doubtless have become the state-religion of a vast Asiatic empire. But the course of its destinies was changed by the vanquishment of this great adversary of Rome (66 B.C.). The débris of the Pontic armies and fleets, the fugitives driven out by the war and flocking in from all parts of the Orient, disseminated the Iranian Mysteries among that nation of pirates that rose to power under the protecting shelter of the mountains of Cilicia. Mithra became firmly established in this country, in which Tarsus continued to worship him until the downfall of the empire (Figure 9). Supported by its bellicose religion, this republic of adventurers dared to dispute the supremacy of the seas with the Roman colossus. Doubtless they considered themselves the chosen

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nation, destined to carry to victory the religion of the invincible god. Strong in the consciousness of his protection, these audacious mariners boldly pillaged the most venerated sanctuaries

Fig. 9.

Obverse: Bust of Gordianus III., clad in a paludamentum and wearing a rayed crown. Reverse: Mithra, wearing a rayed crown and clad in a floating chlamys, a tunic covered by a breast-plate, and anaxyrides (trousers), seizes with his left band the nostrils of the bull, which he has forced to its knees, while in his right hand he holds aloft a knife with which he is about to slay the animal. (T. et M., p. 190.)

of Greece and Italy, and the Latin world rang for the first time with the name of the barbaric divinity that was soon to impose upon it his adoration.

Mithraism is the ancient Roman mystery cult of the god Mithras. Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the early Roman empire, perhaps during the late first century of the Common Era (hereafter CE), and flourished from the second through the fourth centuries CE. While it is fairly certain that Romans encountered worship of the deity Mithras as part of Zoroastrianism in the eastern provinces of the empire, particularly in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey), the exact origins of cult practices in the Roman cult of Mithras remain controversial (see below). The evidence for this cult is mostly archaeological, consisting of the remains of mithraic temples, dedicatory inscriptions, and iconographic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult in stone sculpture, sculpted stone relief, wall painting, and mosaic. There is very little literary evidence pertaining to the cult.

The Deity: Mitra, Mithra, Mithras

Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian god Mitra, or Mithra, as he was called by the Persians. Mitra is part of the Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is one of several yazatas (minor deities) under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon. Mithra is the god of the airy light between heaven and earth, but he is also associated with the light of the sun, and with contracts and mediation. Neither in Hinduism nor in Zoroastrianism did Mitra/Mithra have his own cult. Mitra is mentioned in the Hindu Vedas, while Mithra is is the subject of Yashts (hymns) in the Zoroastrian Avesta, a text compiled during the Sassanian period (224640 CE) to preserve a much older oral tradition.

Franz Cumont - The Mysteries Of Mithra

Possible Eastern Origins of the Roman Cult The precise relationship between the Roman cult of Mithras as it developed during the empire and the Mitra and Mithra of the Hindu and Zoroastrian pantheons, respectively, is unclear. The theory that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism was first put forward by Franz Cumont, a Belgian scholar, in his two-volume publication Textes et monuments figur&eacutes relatifs aux myst&egraveres de Mithra in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer ">Cumont himself recognized possible flaws in his theory. The most obvious is that there is little evidence for a Zoroastrian cult of Mithra (Cumont 1956), and certainly none that suggests that Zoroastrian worship of Mithra used the liturgy or the well-devoloped iconography found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Moreover, few monuments from the Roman cult have been recovered from the very provinces which are thought to have inspired worship of Mithras (namely the provinces of Asia Minor). Finally, Cumont was aware that the earliest datable evidence for the cult of Mithras came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the province of Upper Pannonia on the Danube River (modern Hungary). Indeed, the largest quantity of evidence for mithraic worship comes from the western half of the empire, particularly from the provinces of the Danube River frontier and from Rome and her port city, Ostia, in Italy. To explain this phenomenon, Cumont proposed that soldiers stationed in western provinces and transferred to eastern provinces for short periods of time learned of the deity Mithra and began to worship and dedicate monuments to a god they called Mithras when they returned to their customary garrison. It is true that soldiers from the Roman legion XV Apollinaris stationed at Carnuntum in the first century CE were called to the East in 63 CE to help fight in a campaign against the Parthians and further to help quell the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem from 6670 CE. Members of the legion made mithraic dedications back in Carnuntum after their return from these campaigns, possibly as early as 71 or 72 CE. Once these Roman soldiers and the camp-followers of the legions, who included merchants, slaves, and freedmen, started to worship Mithras, argued Cumont, their further movements around the empire served to spread the cult to other areas.

Cumont’s scholarship was so influential that it founded mithraic studies as an area of inquiry in its own right. Cumont’s student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, was a scholar equally as prolific as his mentor. Among Vermaseren’s greatest contributions was an up-dated English language catalogue of mithraic monuments (Vermaseren 1956, 1960).

Structure and Liturgy of the Roman mystery cult of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a "mystery" cult, which is to say that its members kept the the liturgy and activities of the cult secret, and more importantly, that they had to participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the cult. As a result, there is no surviving central text of Mithraism analogous to the Christian Bible, and there is no intelligible text which describes the liturgy. Whether such texts ever existed is unknown, but doubtful. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are about one hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (seebelow). To enhance the resemblence to a natural cave the ceiling ofthe mithraeum was vaulted and often had crushed pottery adhering to it toimitate natural rock. Sometimes the ceilings were pierced with holes tolet shafts of light in. The cave was intended to recall an event inMithras’ life (see below) and also to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.

We surmise from the structure of mithraea and from paintings which are preserved in certain mithraea that mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. The details of the liturgy are uncertain, but it is worth noting that most mithraea have room for only thirty to forty members, and only a few are so large that a bull could actually be sacrificed inside.


The structure of the cult was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a tutelary planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (the Sun’s courier, under Sol, the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade.

Two aspects of mithraic initiation offer important insight into the cult. First, it was possible for a mithraic initiate to be a member of more than one cult, and second, women were not permitted to become members. These facts are critical to understanding the cult of Mithraism in relation to other Roman cults, to official Roman state religion, and to the cult of Christianity (see below).

Mithraic Iconography

Mithraic monuments have a rich and relatively coherent iconography, chronologically and geographically speaking. In each mithraic temple there was a central scene showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (often called a tauroctony). Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He faces the viewer while half-straddling the back of a bull, yanks the bull’s head back by its nostrils with his left hand, and plunges a dagger into the bull’s thoat with his right. Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles. Often the bull’s tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull’s back. On the viewer’s left stands a diminutive male figure named Cautes, wearing the same garb as Mithras and holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer’s left there is another diminutive male figure, Cautopates, who is also clad as Mithras is and holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.

For a long time the meaning of the bull-sacrificing scene and its associated figures was unclear, but a long series of studies beginning with one by K. B. Stark in 1869 and culminating in studies by Roger Beck (1984 and 1988), David Ulansey (1989) and Noel Swerdlow (1991) has revealed a comprehensible astrological symbolism. Each figure and element in the scene correlates to specific constellations, to the seven planets recognized by the ancient Romans, and to the position of these in relation to the celestial equator and the ecliptic, particularly at the time of the equinoxes and the solstices.


The bull-sacrificing scene is usually carved in stone relief or painted on stone and placed in mithraea in a visible location. In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.

The Popularity of Mithraism Geographically, Socially, and Chronologically

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was most popular among the legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian’s wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas support Cumont’s assertion that Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces (see above).

The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.

As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have "trickled up" the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century "resurgence of paganism," when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.


Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE, but the common belief that Mithraism was the prime competitor of Christianity, promulgated by Ernst Renan (Renan 1882 579), is blatantly false. Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was, as mentioned above, only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. The major competitor to Christianity was thus not Mithraism but the combined group of imported cults and official Roman cults subsumed under the rubric "paganism." Finally, part of Renan’s claim rested on an equally common, but almost equally mistaken, belief that Mithraism was officially accepted because it had Roman emperors among its adherents (Nero, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and the Tetrarchs are most commonly cited). Close examination of the evidence for the participation of emperors reveals that some comes from literary sources of dubious quality and that the rest is rather circumstantial. The cult of Magna Mater, the first imported cult to arrive in Rome (204 BCE) was the only one ever officially recognized as a Roman cult. The others, including Mithraism, were never officially accepted, and some, particularly the Egyptian cult of Isis, were periodically outlawed and their adherents persecuted.

Scholarly Debate

Cumont’s large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont’s theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce’s and Frantz Grenet’s History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.