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The Mithraic Mysteries, also known as Mithraism, were a mystery cult in the Roman world where followers worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithras (Akkadian for "contract") as the god of friendship, contract and order. The cult first appeared in the late 1st century CE and, at an extraordinary pace, spread from the Italian Peninsula and border regions across the whole of the Roman empire.

The cult, like many others, was a secret one. Votaries (i.e. followers of the cult) worshipped Mithras in temples often built into caves and hidden away from the public. This was done so as to create the feeling of being part of a special group, just like a close group of friends that does not share secrets with outsiders. However, the secrecy of the cult was tolerated by the authorities, especially by the Roman emperors, because it was in favour of imperial power. Over 200 Mithras temples have been found, stretching from Syria to Britain, but finds are concentrated mostly in Italy, on the Rhine, and the Danube. After the crisis of the 3rd century CE and the establishment of Christianity, the Mithras Mysteries diminished in importance as temples were walled up or destroyed by Christians. However, some temples remained in use until the early 5th century CE.

The most important element of the myth behind the Mithraic Mysteries was Mithras' killing of a bull.

The most important element of the myth behind the Mithraic Mysteries was Mithras' killing of a bull; this scene is also known as "tauroctony". It was believed that from the death of the bull - an animal often seen as a symbol of strength and fertility - sprung new life. Rebirth was an essential idea in the myth of Mithraic Mysteries. The sacrifice of the bull established a new cosmic order and was also associated with the moon, which was also associated with fertility.

The relief of Mithras

What is special about the Mithraic Mysteries is its visuality. The sacrifice of the bull was depicted in a stone relief that had a central place in nearly every cult temple. In the relief, Mithras is often shown as he wrangles the bull to the ground and kills it. Being a Persian god, Mithras wears what Romans believed to be typical "Persian Chic": the Phrygian cap and pants, which Romans did not wear. Around 650 of these stone reliefs have been found, and they are all strikingly similar.

In a typical example, such as the celebrated sculpture from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Mithras looks away from the dying bull, up to the moon. In addition, Mithras has a few helpers that assist him in taking the bull's fertility: A dog and a snake drink from the bull's blood, and a scorpion stings the bull's scrotum. Also, a raven sits on the bull's tail that typically ends in ears of grain. The raven could have played the role of a mediator between Mithras and the sun god Sol invictus, with whom Mithras will share the meat of the bull.

The bull sacrifice relief was typically placed at the end of the temple, which was essentlly built like a stretched-out Roman dining room – an aisle flanked by two broad, raised benches. However, the sacrifice of the bull was rarely enacted by the worshippers themselves. Worshippers did imitate how Mithras shared the bull's meat with Sol, as fragments of dishes and bones of animals that have been found in these temples testify. High-quality pork, chicken and a large quantity of wine were consumed in high-spirited cultic feasts that connected the worshippers to each other and to Mithras.

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The Seven Degrees of Intiation

The Mithraic Mysteries were not just about fun and games, however. There were strict rules as to how the feasts were organised, for example, regarding hygiene. What is more, there were seven degrees of initiation, ranging from "corax" (raven) to "pater" (father), of which each had its own type of clothing. The other degrees were "nymphus" (bridegroom), "miles" (soldier) , "leo" (lion), "perses" (Persian), and "heliodromus" (sun-runner). Each degree of initiation had a different task to fulfill, e.g. a "raven" had to carry the food, while the "lions" offered sacrifices to the "father". Also, the initiates had to take part in tests of courage. The paintings in the temple of Mithras at Santa Maria Capua Vetere show us different scenes of this ritual. An initiate, blindfolded and naked, is led to the ceremony by an assistant. Later, the initiate has to kneel before the "father", who holds a torch or a sword in his face. Finally, he is stretched out on the floor, as if he had died. This probably was a ritual "suicide" in which the initiate was "killed" with a non-lethal theatre-sword, and was then reborn.

Other important elements of the cult were self-denial and a moral questioning of the self. For example, as the Christian author Tertullian tells us around 200 CE, a crown was placed on the initiate's head, which he had to reject, saying "Mithras is my (true) crown" (Tertullian, De corona milites 15). This too was thought of as a ritual of reincarnation, which started a new life for the initiate. The earliest documented followers of Mithras were soldiers and officers of the Roman army, but with the rising popularity of the cult, the majority of votaries were successful, freed slaves of the cities. Women, however, were excluded.

Why would a Roman soldier, or anyone, go through these troubles to become a member of a Mithras Mystery? First, as mentioned earlier, the cult supported the emperor, unlike other cults, such as the Bacchanalia. Second, the cult was based on mutual interest, friendship, and intimacy. The temples accommodated only small groups. It is understandable that members of the military were attracted by these aspects that guaranteed some sort of stability in an otherwise dangerous profession.

DEBATE On The CUlt's origins

There are three different views on how the Mithras Mysteries became a cult in the Roman and Hellenistic world. Roman and Greek historians of the 2nd and 3rd century CE thought that the cult had originated "in Persia" or "with the Persians", and early research often followed this interpretation. However, the archeological findings do not substantiate this view: most Mithraic temples have been found in Italy and the provinces of the Danube, not Persia. What is more, the cultic reliefs depict Mithras display what Romans thought of as typical oriental clothing, but show little originality. This is comparable to modern stereotypes of all Germans wearing leather pants, or all Americans wearing cowboy hats.

A second view is that the original, oriental Persian Mithraism mixed with Roman-Hellenic culture to transform into a new form of cult. While this theory of transformation is tempting, the problem remains that in the border region between the Roman-Hellenic and the Persian world where this merging would have taken place, there are little findings of Mithraic worship.

In recent years, a radical new theory has been established which says that the Mithraic Mysteries did not originate in the east, but in Italy. The cult was founded by an unknown person, or "genius", who borrowed a few things from the Persian world to give his Mithraic Mysteries an exotic touch. The problem here is that this person is never mentioned as the founder even by its votaries, and there is no evidence to support the "invention-theory" other than the greater number of Mithraic temples in Italy, and the lack thereof in other regions. (Cf. Witschel 2013: 209)

The bottom line is that there are too little sources to form a certain explanation of the cult's origin, and there are many blank spots. Besides the many visual artifacts of the Mithraic Mysteries, little written sources remain. There are only descriptions written by Christian authors, who, perhaps, were not exactly fond of the Mithraic competition. In the eyes of church father Hieronymus, for example, Mithras temples were places that were best destroyed. No written sources by members of the Mithras Mysteries survive, but this makes sense, keeping in mind that it was a secret cult. Perhaps the focus should not be so much on finding a single root of the cult. Rather, we should take a dynamic approach. Figuratively speaking, we should take a close look at the different branches of the Mithraic Mysteries at different places, and the different periods of time, or "seasons", at which this fascinating cult existed. Witschel 2013: 209)


I've heard Mithraism called the "Freemasonry" of the Roman Empire. Originally a Persian cult, it had spread to the Roman Empire by the 1st Century CE and had become one of the most popular religions, especially in the Army, by the later part of the 3rd Century. It was out-competed and finally even persecuted by Christianity, and had apparently ceased to exist by the 6th Century.

Mithraism was open only to men, and it involved elaborate and highly secretive initiation rituals. Apparently it promised salvation via the figure of Mithras, who atoned for the world's sins by cutting the throat of a sacrificial bull. Mithraic meeting-places (called mithraeums) have been found at several 3rd and 4th Century archaeological sites, and inscriptions suggest that the cult had become the unofficial religion of the Roman Army in the second half of the 3rd Century.

What else do we know about this cult? Did it influence, or was it influenced by, Christianity or even Judaism?

Kookaburra Jack

1. As far as I can determine (via string searching the term) the solitary researcher of Christianity's history Eusebius, mentions "Mithras" only once:

But that the human sacrifices in almost all nations had been abolished,
is stated by Pallas, who made an excellent collection concerning
the mysteries of Mithras in the time of the Emperor Hadrian.

Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel).
Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903)
Book 4, Chapter 16

2. What do the literary fragments of Emperor Julian have to say about Mithras? Answer
3. Even though it appears to have been a cult associated with the army, perhaps religious privileges for Mithras were withdrawn with the law of Constantine c.326 CE "Religious privileges are reserved for Christians"?


Here are some pics of a Mithraic Temple that I went to in England in July:

Bart Dale

We need to keep a distinction between the ancient Persian god Mithras, and the cult of Mithras (Mithradism). Mithradism never seems to have been found in ancient Persia. For example, Mithraeum, the distinctive underground temples of Mithradism, are found only in the Roman Empire. The first Mithraeum date only to the 1st century CE.

The comparison to Freemasonry is particularly apt. Freemasonry has rituals that harken back to the myths and legends of the buidling of Solomn's Temple, although most scholars think that Freemasonry dates back only to Medieval Europe or later. There first clear reference we have of Freemasonry dates back to the 18th century CE England. Just as Freemasonry has rituals inspired by legends of the building of Solomn's Temple, so the Persian legends and myths may have borrowed by Mithradism.



Mithraism Alison Griffith EAWC Essay: Mithraism
Reprinted with permission from the Ecole Initiative.

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.

Mithraism - History of Religion

Mithraism was spread from Central Asia and Northern India up to the Atlantic Ocean. In Central Asia and Northern India, Mithra was one of the most revered deities of the powerful Kushan state. His cult was revered in the time of the Achaemenids. He was worshiped by Cyrus the Younger, Darius I as the god of the sun and eternal fire. In the Sassanid Iran, the cult of Mithras occupied an important place in the system of orthodox Zoroastrianism. Mithraism was prevalent in the Hellenistic world, from the 1st c. AD in Rome, from the II. AD throughout the Roman Empire. He was particularly popular in the border provinces, where Roman legions stood, whose soldiers were mainly adherents of the cult of Mithras, who considered him a god who brought victory. Close to the Roman camp sites, there are remnants of numerous sanctuary-mitras, on which you can find the military inscription Unbeaten Sun-god Mithra. " In Dura Europos - a small town on the bank of the Euphrates River - Mithra was revered along with Jupiter, in other cases identified with Zeus.

The traces of the cult of Mithras are already found in the era of the Indo-Iranian community. The image of Mithras is found in Indian mythology - in the Vedas and in Iranian mythology - in the Avesta. In this connection, there are two points of view in the scientific literature. According to one, both the Indian and Avestan Mithras are one and the same. According to the second, they, having the same features, are at the same time different. For example, if in the Iranian communities the devas were evil spirits and the asuras were good, then in the Indian communities everything was the other way around.

The idea of ​​Mithra is especially developed in Mihr-Yasht - one of the longest and most famous hymns of the Avesta. The oldest parts of Mihr-Yashta date back to the middle of the 1st millennium BC. Some descriptions of Mithras are given in other books of the Avesta.

On Mithra, the ancients looked like an intermediary between Ahura-Mazda and Anhra-Mainyo he protects mankind from evil, performing secret sacrifices, thanks to him and good will triumph in the world.

In the Iranian communities, Mithra acts as a personal deity guarding the universal order, which requires the appropriate behavior of a person: following certain moral norms, the law, the worship of the gods. The main goal of human life is to help Ahura Mazda and Mithra in the fight against evil forces Mithraism, therefore, recognizes the active role of people. The person himself chooses between good and evil, truth and lies, taking full responsibility for this choice for himself. The basis of the ethics of righteousness are good thoughts, kind words, good deeds other virtues are also important: honesty, truthfulness, generosity, wisdom, etc. These qualities are opposite to the qualities of the unfaithful, characterized by evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds.

Mithraism offers various degrees of moral perfection. Each degree has a symbolic name. First of all, warriors are those who come into conflict with evil forces. Lions and hyenas are those who have already begun to fight the evil and evil spirit of malice. Crows are those who are thirsty and anticipate the death of the evil beginning. Golden or iron - who tempered in the fight against evil and carries an indestructible hope of victory. Finally, Victorious Miter is the one who wins the evil.

Mithra in ancient Iranian mythology is associated with the idea of ​​a treaty, mediation, vow, consent, friendship. According to the legends, he has a thousand ears and a thousand eyes, he is a fighter, and no one can catch his horses. It affects all those accused of perjury. Mitra destroys houses, a country where people who oppose him and violate oaths live. Mitra organizes life, establishes agreement between people, protects the country from internal strife, wars, punishes enemies. Here he appears as the god of war, fighting on the side of the righteous, faithful to the treaty and ruthless in relation to the offender of law and consent. Mitra - the god who defines moral and legal norms, watches everything that has created Ahura-Mazda. It also protects state borders, which reflected the tendency to consolidate tribes into tribal unions, to overcome inter-tribal clashes through the conclusion of contracts.

Mithra was worshiped as a solar god. The sun was perceived by the ancients as the main source and cause of the development of all life, as the engine of the cosmic world, the bearer of social and moral laws. In this regard, the formation of the cult of Mitra was largely influenced by the ancient Eastern cults and, above all, the Mesopotamian solar religion. So, the god Mitra is in many respects similar to the Mesopotamian god of the sun Shamash. It was believed that Mithra begins his heavenly path as the sun god from the mythical mountain

Hari, which is narrated in the Avesta. From it, he looks to the whole world. There is no darkness, no night, no wind.

In Yashta, the parents of Mithra are Ahura-Mazda and his wife the goddess of the land of Armayti (avast. - piety, well-meaning). According to another legend, he was born on planets, in an empty and dark grotto from a maiden named Mir, which means "love", "fever". Mages brought him gifts, which usually brought the sun - gold and incense.

Mithra is the brother of the gods Rashnu (Middle Rashi) and Sraosha (Middle Syrian Srosh). Sraosha is the god of religious obedience and order. "Srosh-yasht and the 57th chapter of Yasna in the Avesta. He is the messenger of Ahura-Mazda, is called to prevent delusions, false thoughts, guard against evil spirits and evil spirits.

Rashnu is the deity of justice, his attribute is the golden scales. He is Mitra's constant companion, omnipresent and omniscient. According to Iranian mythology, the place of residence is the world river Rangha, which acts as a symbol of the end of the region. The depth of this river is a thousand times greater than the height of a man.

Mitra, along with Rashnu and Sraosha, is a judge over the souls of the dead on the Judge's Chinvat bridge. Rashnu weighs on the scales good and bad deeds of man. Good thoughts, words and deeds are placed on one side of the scales, on the other - bad thoughts, words, deeds. If good thoughts, words and deeds outweigh the bad, the soul rushes up to paradise, to the bright abode of Ahura Mazda, and otherwise falls down to the abode where it is tormented in the society of the Devas and Anhra Mineya. It is believed that this court occurs in the first three days after death. Therefore, the significance of the prayers spoken these days is so great.

Mithra was portrayed as a warrior brave warrior who, riding through the sky and during the battle, drives around in a chariot drawn by four white horses and becomes jazz (god) of war. The Chariot of Mithras is ruled by Ashi - the personification of luck, abundance, happiness and good. Ashi is similar to the Roman Fortune. In Yashtah her father is called Ahura-Mazda, mother - ArmeMi, brothers - Sraosha, Rashnu, Mitra.

It paves the way for the chariot of Daen - the personification of scholarship, as well as pious adherence to zororastrism and Mithraism and moral and moral qualities of a person. The righteous person after the death of Daen is in the form of a beautiful young maiden and accompanies him in the House of Praise. The House of Praise is the paradise of Ahura Mazda, the kingdom of infinite light, /strong> the seat of the righteous souls. The soul of the righteous, before entering the House of Praise, passes the spheres of the stars, the moon and the sun. The sinner Daena meets in the guise of a disgusting old woman at the bridge Chinwat and throws her into the underworld, Dzhajava - the kingdom of infinite darkness, hell , where he inhabits Angra Mainyu.

The name Mithridates (given by Mithra) was very common among the eastern kings, which indicates the high importance of Mithras. Darius Histasmus took equally honorable places to the emblems of Ahura Mazda and Mitra on the sculptural plaque of his tomb (485 BC).

The properties attributed to Mithra were both physical and moral in nature. In the physical sense, he is a light-bearer and the life-giving force of nature. It penetrates everywhere, giving life. In moral terms, he is the bearer of righteousness, personifies the order and protects it.


Mithraism. A pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander‘s conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era, reached its zenith during the third century, and vanished under the repres-ive regulations of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century. Of late the researches of Cumont have brought it into prominence mainly because of its supposed similarity to Christianity.

ORIGIN. The origin of the cult of Mithra dates from the time that Hindus and Persians still formed one people, for the god Mithra occurs in the religion and the sacred books of both races, i.e. in the Vedas and in the Avesta. In Vedic hymns he is frequently mentioned and is nearly always coupled with Varuna, but beyond the bare occurrence of his name, little is known of him only one, possibly two, hymns are dedicated to him (Rigveda, III, 59). It is conjectured (Oldenberg, “Die Religion des Veda,” Berlin, 1894) that Mithra was the rising sun, Varuna the setting sun or, Mithra, the sky at daytime, Varuna, the sky at night or, the one the sun, the other the moon. In any case Mithra is a light or solar deity of some sort but in Vedic times the vague and general mention of him seems to indicate that his name was little more than a memory. In the Avesta he is much more of a living and ruling deity than in Indian piety nevertheless, he is not only secondary to Ahura Mazda, but he does not belong to the seven Amshaspands or personified virtues which immediately surround Ahura he is but a Yazad, a popular demigod or genius. The Avesta however gives us his position only after the Zoroastrian reformation the inscriptions of the Achaemenidae (seventh to fourth century B.C.) assign him a much higher place, naming him immediately after Ahura Mazda and associating him with the goddess Anaitis (Anahata), whose name sometimes precedes his own. Mithra is the god of light, Anaitis the goddess of water. Independently of the Zoroastrian reform, Mithra retained his place as foremost deity in the northwest of the Iranian highlands. After the conquest of Babylon this Persian cult came into contact with Chaldean astrology and with the national worship of Marduk. For a time the two priesthoods of Mithra and Marduk (magi and chaldiei respectively) coexisted in the capital and Mithraism borrowed much from this intercourse. This modified Mithraism travelled farther northwestward and became the State cult of Armenia. Its rulers, anxious to claim descent from the glorious kings of the past, adopted Mithradates as their royal name (so five kings of Georgia, and Eupator of the Bosporus). Mithraism then entered Asia Minor, especially Pontus and Cappadocia. Here it came into contact with the Phrygian cult of Attis and Cybele from which it adopted a number of ideas and practices, though apparently not the gross obscenities of the Phrygian worship. This Phrygian-Chaldean-Indo-Iranian religion, in which the Iranian element remained predominant, came, after Alexander‘s conquest, in touch with the Western World. Hellenism, however, and especially Greece itself, remained remarkably free from its influence. When finally the Romans took possession of the Kingdom of Pergamum, occupied Asia Minor and stationed two legions of soldiers on the Euphrates, the success of Mithraism in the West was secured. It spread rapidly from the Bosporus to the Atlantic, from Illyria to Britain. Its foremost apostles were the legionaries hence it spread first to the frontier stations of the Roman army.

Mithraism was emphatically a soldier religion: Mithra, its hero, was especialiy a divinity of fidelity, manliness, and bravery the stress it laid on good-fellowship and brotherliness, its exclusion of women, and the secret bond amongst its members have suggested the idea that Mithraism was Masonry amongst the Roman soldiery. At the same time Eastern slaves and foreign tradesmen maintained its propaganda in the cities. When magi, coming from King Tiridates of Armenia, had worshipped in Nero an emanation of Mithra, the emperor wished to be initiated in their mysteries. As Mithraism passed as a Phrygian cult it began to share in the official recognition which Phrygian worship had long enjoyed in Rome. The Emperor Commodus was publicly initiated. Its greatest devotee however was the imperial son of a priestess of the sun-god at Sirmium in Pannonia, Valerian, who according to the testimony of Flavius Vopiscus, never forgot the cave where his mother initiated him. In Rome, he established a college of sun priests and his coins bear the legend “Sol, Dominus Imperii Romani”. Diocletian, Galerius, and Licinius built at Carnuntum on the Danube a temple to Mithra with the dedication: “Fautori Imperii Sui”. But with the triumph of Christianity Mithraism came to a sudden end. Under Julian it had with other pagan cults a short revival. The pagans of Alexandria lynched George the Arian, bishop of the city, for attempting to build a church over a Mithras cave near the town. The laws of Theodosius I signed its death warrant. The magi walled up their sacred caves and Mithra has no martyrs to rival the martyrs who died for Christ.

Slaying of the Bull

Unfortunately, Mithraic written texts and studies on Mithraicism (such as the many volumes on Mithras written by Eubulus, as recorded by Jerome) were destroyed by Christian persecution. What remains are the symbolic and graphical representations found in the cave-like Mithraic grottos.

Mithra is nearly always shown standing over a bull, slitting its throat. This led some early researchers to conclude that Mithraism revolved around the Taurobolium the practice of slaughtering a live bull and drinking or bathing in its blood. (Ninian Smart)

Actually, as others have pointed out, there was no physical space for such a procedure in the Mithraim. “Seldom if ever would the initiate be sprinkled with the blood of a slain bull. (Frend 277)

Moreover, due to the overwhelmingly consistent astrological features found, it is more probable that the Bull-Slaying act of Mithra was a celestial event of great importance to the spiritual climate of the cult.

As we know (and as attested in the above picture) the constellations have remained intact for several thousand years. The bull above is surrounded by a Scorpion (scorpio), a Sea-Goat (capricorn), two fish swimming in opposite directions (pisces), a woman holding scales, (libra) etc. Mithra here is accomplishing some monumental task by slaying the astrological sign of Taurus, the bull.

Although I won’t go into it here – I believe the symbolism represents the fact that the spring equinox took place under the sign of Taurus, and thus when the sun was victorious over darkness (by being reborn at the end of winter) the battle is represented by Mithra slaying the bull. Another interpretation is that Mithraism originally developed during the end of the age of Taurus, (2400BC), and that Mithra was seen as causing the precession of the equinoxes and virtually self-manifesting the coming age of Aries (2400 – 200BC).

A further interpretation I have come across (Lactantius Placidus) is that the bull represents the moon (like Egypt’s moon/bull goddess Hathor) in which case this could symbolize an eclipse.

The following fragments also hint of similarity – such as Jesus bearing the burden of the cross:

“This bullock which he properly carried on his golden shoulders.”

“And the most important (orders?) of the gods I have borned on my shoulders and carried”

“You have saved us by shedding the external blood.”

Extracts from CIMRM 485 (dowden79)

It is not true that Mithraicism had no sacred writings however, with the subsequent rise of the Christian empire, Mithraic texts were gathered and destroyed.


Mithra was the Persian name. Mithra was a Zoroastrian deity and was made by Ahura Mazda to be "as worthy of worship as I am".

I think many here are aware of the similarities of the dying and resurrecting god motif that includes Jesus. But Mithra goes beyond the Mediterranian. Mithra comes from the Indo-European root "mitra", which means covenant or contract. This can not help but remind me of Jesus' new convenant and Angel of the Lord's convenant in OT. Also, the Buddhist messiah that will come at the end of age is Maitreya. Both Maitreya and Mitha share the same root "mitra".

Dec. 25th was said to be Mithas' birthday who was probably syncretized with Sol Invictus as Dec 25th is usually associated with winter solstice.

Mithraism quite possibly ran a system closely parallelled by initiatory organizations of today. The following article from the Journal of Mithraic Studies pieces together what may have been the rigidly cellular, hermetic nature of its organization (Okamido originally presented this in his archaeology thread):

The method of initiation described therein is akin to Freemasonic ritual to an uncanny degree - which is not that suprising since they are merely a modern "mystery cult lite."


Infulence by many cultures.

There were bulls who had the range of the temple of Poseidon and the ten kings, being left alone in the temple, after they had offered prayers to the god that they might capture the victim which was acceptable to him, hunted the bulls, without weapons but with staves and nooses and the bull which they caught they led up to the pillar and cut its throat over the top of it so that the blood fell upon the sacred inscription. Now on the pillar, besides the laws, there was inscribed an oath invoking mighty curses on the disobedient. When therefore, after slaying the bull in the accustomed manner, they had burnt its limbs, they filled a bowl of wine and cast in a clot of blood for each of them the rest of the victim they put in the fire, after having purified the column all round. Then they drew from the bowl in golden cups and pouring a libation on the fire, they swore that they would judge according to the laws on the pillar, and would punish him who in any point had already transgressed them, and that for the future they would not, if they could help, offend against the writing on the pillar, and would neither command others, nor obey any ruler who commanded them, to act otherwise than according to the laws of their father Poseidon


Were any Mithraeums built in Roman Asia? In many ways they were in cities along the trade routes. Candidates may be below the Seven Churches of Paul's letters.

"A possible link between Persia and Rome, which could be the stage for these changes, may be the kingdoms of Parthia and Pontus in Asia Minor. Several of their kings were called Mithradates, meaning "given by Mithra", starting with Mithradates I of Parthia (died 138 BC). It would seem that, in those kingdoms, Mithra was a god whose power lent luster even to a king. And it was at Pergamum, in the 2nd century BC, that Greek sculptors started to produce bas-relief imagery of Mithra Taurocthonos, "Mithra the bull-slayer." Although the cult of Mithras never caught on in the Greek homeland, those sculptures may indicate the route between Persian Mithra and Roman Mithras.

Around the first century AD, the Greek historian Plutarch wrote about pirates of Cilicia who practiced the Mithraic "secret rites" around 67 BC. Since Cilicia was the coastal province in the southeast of Anatolia, the Mithras mentioned by Plutarch may have been worship of the Persian god Mithra or may have been associated with Ahriman, the Persian god who killed a bull."

The Mithraic Mysteries and the underground chamber of San Clemente

Prior to the adoption of Christianity as its official religion at the end of the 3 rd century AD, the Roman Empire’s religious policy was one of tolerance. Along with the official Roman religion, other religions were allowed to be practised. Moreover, some of the deities and religious practices of the people conquered by the Roman Empire were adopted by the Romans themselves. These include mystery cults such as that of the Dionysian Mysteries, Orphic Mysteries, and Mithraic Mysteries.

Mithra was a Zoroastrian deity who was in charge of covenants and oaths. The name of this god was adapted into Greek as Mithras. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the Zoroastrian Mithra was the same as the Roman Mithras. Some scholars regarded Mithra and Mithras as one and the same, while others regarded Mithras as a completely new Roman product. Yet others suggest that whilst Mithras may not be as ‘Oriental’ as some suggest, the fact that a Persian name was used has some significance.

Our modern understanding of the Mithraic Mysteries is derived mainly from reliefs and sculptures. The most common imagery is that of Mithras slaying a sacred bull, an act known also as ‘tauroctony’. This scene can be seen in Mithraea (the plural form of the Mithraic place of worship, singular: Mithraeum) throughout the Roman Empire. A Mithraeum was either adapted from a natural cave or cavern, or a building built to imitate such a space. When using a building as a Mithraeum, it would usually be constructed within or under the said building. As the Mithraeum was used mainly for initiation ceremonies, the dark, enclosed areas functioned symbolically as a place where the initiate’s soul descended into and exited.

Temples dedicated to the worship of Mithras continue to be uncovered, shedding new light on this mystery cult. In 2017, excavations at Zerzevan Castle in Turkey turned up a 1,700-year-old temple to Mithras, which is the only known temple to Mithras on the Roman Empire’s eastern border. In the same year, archaeologists working in the ancient Roman city of Mariana on the French island of Corsica unearthed the ruins of another sanctuary of a cult of Mithra . It was the first evidence of Mithraism having been practiced on the island.

A relief dedicated to Mithra found in the Mithraeum of the Circus Maximus. Image source .

One of the most well-known Mithraeums is located in the basement of the Basilica of Saint Clement (Basilica di San Clemente) in Rome. The main cult room, which is about 9.6m long and 6m wide, was discovered in 1867 but could not be investigated until 1914 due to lack of drainage. Central to the main room of the sanctuary was found an altar, in the shape of a sarcophagus, and with the main cult relief of the tauroctony, Mithras slaying a bull, on its front face. The torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates appear on respectively the left and right faces of the same monument. Other monuments discovered in the sanctuary include a bust of Sol kept in the sanctuary in a niche near the entrance, and a figure of Mithras petra generix (Mithras born of the rock). Fragments of statuary of the two torch bearers were also found. One of the rooms adjoining the main chamber has two oblong brickwork enclosures, one of which was used as a ritual refuse pit for remnants of the cult meal. All three monuments mentioned above are still on display in the mithraeum.

Mithras and the Bull: This fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy (third century) shows the tauroctony and the celestial lining of Mithras' cape. Image source: Wikipedia

In addition to initiation ceremonies, archaeological evidence suggests that feasting was another common activity at the Mithraeum. For instance, utensils and food residues are often found in these places of worship. Thus, it has been suggested that banquets were carried out to imitate the feast of Mithras and Sol, a solar deity. This divine feast is the second most important Mithraic iconography, in which the two gods are seen banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered sacred bull. Based on this correlation between archaeology and art, it has been suggested that other episodes of the Mithraic narrative were re-enacted by the followers of this mystery cult.

Incidentally, it has been pointed out that the rituals of Christianity and the Mithraic Mysteries are quite similar. This was done by none other than the early Christian apologists. These Christian writers, however, viewed the Mithraic rituals negatively and argued that they were corrupted copies of the Christian ones. In view of this, it may also be argued that it was Christianity that copied the Mithraic mysteries, or that the flow of ideas went both ways. Nevertheless, it will remain uncertain, as the medium of transfer, if there ever was one, has yet to be identified.

Despite similarities in rituals, Christianity and the Mithraic Mysteries were different in other respects. For instance, whilst Christianity was inclusive in nature, membership of the Mithraic Mysteries was exclusive. The Mithraic Mysteries was quite popular with the military, as evidenced in the presence of the Mithraeum at military outposts such as at the site of Carrawburgh Roman Fort, along Hadrian’s Wall in England. Furthermore, evidence suggests that only men were initiated into the Mithraic Mysteries. In addition, most of these men would have belonged to the class just below the elite but above the lower classes.

The Mithraic Mysteries will likely remain a mystery to us in the modern world. Apart from the archaeological evidence, there is little written evidence to inform us about the rituals carried out by its members. Yet, the archaeology allows us a glimpse into the secret world of the Mithraic Mysteries, and perhaps more may be uncovered in the future.

Featured image: Mithraeum in lowest floor in San Clemente in Rome, Italy. Photo source: Wikipedia


MITHRAISM, the cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran.

For most of the twentieth century the major problem addressed by scholarship on both Roman Mithraism and the Iranian god Mithra was the question of continuity. Did Mithra-worship migrate from Iran to the Roman Empire in some institutional form or was Mithraism invented in the West (with a few Iranian trappings) as a new institution altogether? At the start of the twenty first century, this issue appears to be less central to the concerns of scholarship on Western Mithraism, but it remains important nevertheless, and obviously it must be the lens through which Mithraism is examined in this article. The first task, though, is to describe the Mithras cult as it did in fact develop in the West, and in so far as we can reconstruct it objectively from its material remains. Reconstruction is not easy, since no ancient literary works about Mithraism and no substantial sacred texts from Mithraism have survived.

Western Mithraism described. The term &ldquoMithraism&rdquo is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as &ldquothe mysteries of Mithras&rdquo alternatively, as &ldquothe mysteries of the Persians.&rdquo The latter designation is significant. The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic &ldquoPersians.&rdquo Moreover, whatever moderns might think, the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who &ldquodedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia,&rdquo an idyllic setting &ldquoabounding in flowers and springs of water&rdquo (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).

Persia (or Parthia) in those times was Rome&rsquos great rival and frequently at war with her. Nonetheless, there is no indication that this antagonism was ever problematic for the Mithraists socially or politically. Clearly, their cultic &ldquoPersian&rdquo identity, which they made no attempt to hide, was acceptable to the authorities and their fellow citizens.

The socio-political acceptability of the Mithraists, despite their Perserie, can be explained largely by their social profile. They were the most conformist of men &mdash and men indeed they were in the limited gender sense of the word, a factor which itself would add to their respectability or at least not detract from it (compare the charge against Christianity that it subverted the family by proselytizing the womenfolk). Mithraism drew its initiates disproportionately from the military, from the Empire&rsquos petty bureaucracy, and from moderately successful freedmen (i.e. ex-slaves), in fact from theretainer classes, the very people who had a stake in the current sociopolitical dispensation. (On Mithraism&rsquos social profile see Clauss 1992, Gordon 1972, Liebeschuetz 1994 Merkelbach 1984: pp. 153-88)

We noticed above that Mithraism&rsquos original, archetypal sacred space was thought to be a cave. This perception, reported by an external source (the third-century CE philosopher Porphyry), is corroborated by internal data and the archaeological evidence. The Mithraists did indeed call their meeting places &ldquocaves,&rdquo whether they actually were or not. Natural caves were used where available and where not, especially in urban settings (Rome, Ostia), a room or suite of rooms within some larger structure was used and sometimes decorated so as to resemble a natural cave. Mithraea (our modern term), like natural caves and unlike most constructed temples, had no elaborate or even recognizable exteriors. (On the structure of the mithraeum see White 1990: pp. 47-59.)

That Mithraists met in &ldquocaves&rdquo which were distinctively designed and furnished has had important consequences for the archaeological record and thus for our ability to reconstruct the cult. In addition to their cave-like appearance, mithraea were designed with raised platforms on either side of a central aisle to serve as banqueting couches for the cult meal (on which see below). They were also filled with much sacred art - sculptures (mostly in relief), altars, ritual pottery vessels, frescos, etc. - often with their dedications extant in whole or in part. There is no mistaking a mithraeum when archaeology brings it to light, and the chances are good that it will also divulge something about its membership. (On the furnishings and equipment of the mithraeum see Clauss 2000: 42-59, 114-30.)

The scattering of mithraea, thus identified across the Roman Empire, is perhaps more informative about the cult&rsquos spread and social composition than are the material remains of any of its peers, early Christianity included. We have already looked at Mithraism&rsquos social catchment. As for its spread, though represented virtually everywhere in the Roman empire, it was much stronger in the Latin speaking West than in the (predominantly) Greek-speaking East. It flourished in particular in the city of Rome and its port, Ostia, and along the Rhine-Danube frontier &mdash exactly where one would expect from its social profile. (For maps, see Clauss 1992, province by province).

Without doubt, an intentional concomitant of the &ldquocave&rdquo was the small size of Mithraic groups or cells. The upper limit to the number of persons who can feast intimately on side platforms in a cave or a cave-like inner room is soon reached. Mithraism, then, was a religion of small communities. These communities, moreover, were self-sufficient. There is not a shred of evidence for any co-ordinating, let alone regulating, higher authority. There were no Mithraic bishops the contrast with contemporaneous Christianity, or for that matter with the contemporaneous state Zoroastrianism of Kerdir, could not be more extreme.

As social institutions the Mithraic communities are classed among those groups termed (by moderns) &ldquovoluntary associations.&rdquo Not all voluntary associations served religious ends. Some were analogous to trade guilds perhaps the most common form was the burial society, clubs which could assure their members funerals in a more ample and sociable style than they could individually command. In the religious sphere, it is the voluntary nature of membership that distinguishes these associations from other religious enterprises. One chose to be initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras, whereas one belonged (normally in an entirely passive way) to the public cults of city and empire simply by virtue of belonging at one level or another, from emperor to slave, to those socio-political units: to the public cults you could no more opt in than you could opt out. It follows that ancient mystery cults, Mithraism included, were non-exclusive: as a Mithraist, you would expect, and be expected, to continue your participation in the public cults (On Mithraism as a voluntary association, see Beck 1996.)

The &ldquoMysteries of Mithras,&rdquo to return to their ancient name, were one of a number of ancient religious &ldquomysteries.&rdquo A &ldquomystery,&rdquo in Greek, is something into which one is initiated. Modern connotations of the &ldquomysterious&rdquo or the &ldquomystical&rdquo are irrelevant, and although most ancient mysteries were in fact secret, secrecy was not always a requirement. Not all mysteries were transmitted in and by voluntary associations, and not all voluntary religious associations transmitted rites of initiation as their sole or even principal business. Indeed, Mithraism appears to be the only substantial pagan cult of which it can be said that initiation into its mysteries was both the necessary and the sufficient condition of membership. (On ancient mystery cults, see Burkert 1987.)

Organizationally, the Mithraic groups functioned much as other voluntary associations, but in addition there was an esoteric hierarchy of seven grades. Scholars disagree about the extent of this hierarchy. Was it universal, or normative, or a refinement limited to the relatively few mithraea where it is directly attested? Was it a priesthood? Most scholars would agree that it was not ubiquitous in the sense of being a requirement for all mithraea also that the initiate of the highest grade, the Father, excercised leadership in all aspects of the mithraeum&rsquos sacred business, and that virtually all mithraea would have had at least one Father (two are attested in some mithraea), regardless of the presence or absence of other grades. (On the grades see Clauss 2000: pp. 131-40 contra: Gordon 1994: pp. 465-7 on their esoteric significance, see Gordon 1980a: pp. 19-99.)

Into what was a Mithraist initiated? What, in other words, constituted the sacred business of a mithraeum? Scholarship is in broad agreement that the principal act was the cult meal, celebrated both as an actual feast by the initiates reclining opposite each other on the platforms which served as banqueting couches and as a ritual re-enactment of the feast of Mithras and the Sun god celebrated on the hide of a bull freshly slain by Mithras. (On the cult meal, see Kane 1975.)

That there was another purpose to the Mithraic mysteries and a corresponding ritual is attested in the same passage from Porphyry (On the Cave of the Nymphs 6), already cited above, which tells us that the Mithraists called their sacred places &ldquocaves&rdquo &mdash and why. The intent of the Mithraists was to &ldquoinduct the initiate into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again.&rdquo It was for this ritual purpose (which has been generally misconstrued as a didactic purpose) that the Mithraists made their sacred space cave-like, for the cave is &ldquothe symbol of the universe,&rdquo into which the soul enters for mortal existence and quits for immortality. Accordingly, Porphyry continues, the mithraeum is designed and furnished with &ldquocosmic symbols appropriately arranged&rdquo so as to be an authentic microcosm. (On this ritual and the corresponding design function of the mithraeum, see Beck 2000: pp. 154-65 this article also describes and explicates the two previously unknown rituals depicted on opposite sides of the cult vessel discussed.)

For other initiatory rites we depend primarily on the fresco scenes in the mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere. These depict usually a triad of figures: the initiates, small, naked, humiliated and two initiators, one behind and the other in front of the initiates, manipulating the instruments of initiations. (For illustrations, see Vermaseren 1971: Plates 21-8.)

Mithraism was an astral religion. The perceivable heavens and the celestial bodies (sun, moon, the other five planets, stars) all played a part in the mysteries &mdash the sun necessarily a very large part, since Mithras himself was the Sun god (see below). Astral symbolism (e.g. representations of the zodiac) was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos &ldquofor induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again&rdquo (see above). Furthermore, each of the seven grades of the hierarchy was &ldquounder the tutelage of&rdquo one of the seven planets. Finally, in the principal cult icon, the representation of Mithras as bull-killer (see below), there is a remarkable correspondence between several of the standard elements of the composition and the constellations of a particular tract of the heavens (e.g. the raven and the constellation Corvus).

The astral symbolism incorporated into the mysteries stems of course from the ancient Graeco-Roman construction of the heavens and their denizens in the astronomy/astrology of the times. On the intent of the symbolism there is no scholarly consensus. Indeed, several influential scholars have treated it as superficial decoration without any profound intent at all. That is mistaken. Granted, it is difficult to prove a negative. Nevertheless, the arguments against deep intent have so far merely re-asserted their premise as conclusion: astral symbolism is without deep intent because it is superficial. Only Franz Cumont, the founder of modern Mithraic studies, avoided this petitio principii. He did so by postulating the imposition of an astrological layer by the Chaldeans and by &ldquoHellenized Magi&rdquo during the transmission of Iranian Mithra-worship from Iran to the West (Cumont 1903: pp. 119-30). (For arguments for deep intent in the astral symbolism, see Merkelbach 1984: pp. 75-133, 193-244 Beck 1988 Beck 1994 Beck 2000: pp. 154-65 Ulansey 1989 Jacobs 1999. As superficial imagery, (e.g.) Clauss 2000: pp. 87, 89, 97.)

Roman Mithras. Since the function of its mysteries was to relate the initiate to Mithras, the cult was of course centred entirely on the person of the god. His cult title was &ldquoDeus Sol Invictus Mithras&rdquo: thus, he was &ldquogod,&rdquo he was &ldquothe Sun,&rdquo he was &ldquounconquered,&rdquo he was &ldquoMithras.&rdquo To his identity as the Sun and to his invincibility must be added his Persian-ness, a &ldquofact&rdquo known to outsiders as well as to his initiates. Iconographically, he is depicted in exotic non-Roman, specifically oriental garb: trousers and the &ldquoPersian&rdquo cap. Gods have their personal histories. The story of Mithras survives not in written form derived from an oral narrative &mdash if such there ever was, it has disappeared without trace &mdash but as scenes preserved on what are collectively termed &ldquothe monuments,&rdquo for the most part as relief sculpture on icons, altars, etcetera, but also as statuary and in fresco on the walls of mithraea. In the frescos and on the great complex reliefs (the latter mostly from the Rhine and Danube frontier provinces) a selection of side-scenes representing various episodes surrounds the central scene, the god&rsquos sacrificial killing of a bull. More often this &ldquotauroctony&rdquo is a self-contained icon, and from its privileged location at the head of the central aisle we know that it was the cult&rsquos principal icon consequently, that the bull-killing was the main event in the Mithras myth. (The fundamental illustrated catalogue of Mithraic monuments is Vermaseren 1956-60. Merkelback 1984 and Clauss 2000 are also exceptionally well illustrated. On the iconography of Mithras, see Vollkommer 1992. On the myth of Mithras as inferred from the iconography, see Cumont 1903: pp. 104-49 Vermaseren 1960: pp. 56-88 Clauss 2000: pp. 62-101.)

Some of the larger reliefs could be swiveled so as to display on their reverse the scene of Sol and Mithras feasting on the hide of the bull. The gods&rsquo banquet, then, is the outcome of the sacrifice, and since it is replicated in the cult meal of the initiates (see above), it must be supposed that the mythic sacrifice performed by Mithras is the salvafic cause of whatever benefits accrue to his mortal initiates in replicating the banquet of the two gods. The side-scenes are numerous, and they represent many different episodes in the myth, e.g. the pursuit and capture of the bull, the ascent of Mithras in the Sun&rsquos chariot, as well as occasional episodes which, as far as one can tell, do not include or concern Mithras at all. Moreover, there is no standard order or canon of scenes: only the internal logic of the narrative orders the episodes (e.g., bull-killing precedes banquet, because the bull&rsquos hide serves as couch cover for the banqueters). (On the composition of complex monuments, see Gordon 1980b Beck 1984: pp. 2075-8)

In addition to the bull-killing and the banquet, the scene of Mithras&rsquo birth is manifestly important. He is shown rising upright from a rock, not as a baby but in the prime of youth, with extended arms holding torch and sword. He has, it seems, no father. It would be wrong to say that he has no mother, for the rock itself, identified explicitly as Petra Genetrix (&ldquothe rock that gives birth&rdquo) is his mother. Since the bull-killing was so obviously the god&rsquos principal act, and since the icon which represents it was so clearly the cult&rsquos primary locus of meaning, the scene as regularly represented (with remarkably few variations from the norm) must be described. At the mouth of a cave, Mithras straddles the bull, plunging a dagger into its heart. A dog and a snake dart up at the blood flowing from the wound. A scorpion fastens on the bull&rsquos genitals, and a raven perches on the god&rsquos billowing mantle. Miraculously, the tail of the dying bull has metamorphosed into an ear of wheat. On either side of the scene the twin gods Cautes and Cautopates are posed, the former holding a raised torch, the latter a lowered torch. Above and to the left is the Sun god, above and to the right the Moon goddess. Frequently in tauroctonies from the Rhine and Danube areas, a lion and a two-handled cup are added to the scene.

Finding the &ldquomeaning&rdquo of the scene has been, perhaps to excess, the Great Game of Roman Mithraic hermeneutics. Yet a simple narrative solution, that the bull-killing is just an episode &mdash albeit the principal episode &mdash in the Mithras myth lacks plausibility because of the unusual and ill-assorted assemblage of beings which surround the sacrificing god. As an event, even a supernatural event, in a story it strains one&rsquos sense of narrative realism. So while the tauroctony does indeed represent an episode in a story, it represents, it evokes, it intimates something more and it does so by means of the elements of the composition functioning as symbols, collectively or individually. Interpretations which look eastwards to Iran will be discussed in the next section. The other important modern interpretation looks upwards to the heavens and the notable correspondence between elements of the composition and the ancient constellations (see above, on Mithraism as an astral religion). The shortcoming of interpretations of this latter type is that they have tended to treat the tauroctony rather simplistically as a star chart from which one can decipher the celestial identity of the god as this or that constellation. (For a survey of interpretations of the tauroctony, see Beck 1984: pp. 2080-3 Martin 1994. For celestial interpretations, see Insler 1978 Ulansey 1989 Beck 1994 Jakobs 1999 Weiss 1998. For an important redirection of interpretation (the tauroctony as &ldquocult scene&rdquo and &ldquodepiction of ritual sacrifice&rdquo), see Martin 1994. On the tauroctony in the context of Roman imperial art, see Zwirn 1989. Iranizing interpretations will be referenced in the next section.)

As one would expect in a relatively elaborate Roman cult, Mithras does not lack for divine company. The Graeco-Roman Sun god Helios/Sol has already been mentioned &mdash that Mithras both is and is not the Sun, depending on context, is one of those paradoxes which religions take in their stride &mdash as have the planetary gods. Various of the Olympian gods also play a role, though a minor and marginal one. Finally, there are three esoteric deities, two of whom are the twins Cautes and Cautopates, already mentioned as witnesses to the bull-killing. In appearance they are clones of Mithras, and they represent through their primary attributes of the raised and lowered torches paired opposites in nature and in the heavens (e.g. rising sun and setting sun, flanking Mithras as the midday sun). Within the mystery, they symbolize and, as agents, control the entry of the soul downward into mortality (Cautopates) and its exit upwards into immortality (Cautes). (On this pair of deities, see Hinnells 1976 Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The third esoteric deity is the enigmatic &ldquolion-headed god.&rdquo Since his identification is bound up with the question of Mithraism&rsquos eastern origins, he will be discussed in the next section.

Bibliographic note: The foundational study of Roman Mithraism is Cumont 1899 and Cumont 1903. Short general studies: Vermaseren 1963 Turcan 2000 Clauss 2000. Merkelbach 1984 is a fuller comprehensive study. On Mithraism as a mystery cult among other mysteries, Bianchi 1979a Sfameni Gasparro 1979. There are four volumes of conference papers devoted both to Iranian Mithra and to Roman Mithras and Mithraism: Hinnells 1975 Duchesne-Guillemin 1978 Bianchi 1979 Hinnells 1994. Bibliographic survey: Beck 1984 Gordon in Clauss 2000: pp. 183-90.

From Iranian Mithra to Roman Mithras: Continuity versus re-invention. That Roman Mithras was a Persian god in more than just the perception and self-definition of his Roman initiates is indisputable. To say that he was &ldquothe same&rdquo god, or that he &ldquocame from&rdquo Iran is equally true, though it begs as many questions as it appears to answer. Did he emigrate together with his cult? Was institutionalized Mithra-worship transmitted from East to West? Likewise the Mithra myth(s) and the concepts of the god, his powers, and his functions? Was he &ldquothe same&rdquo god in that strong sense? Or was he re-invented in the West, perhaps by those with some knowledge of the East, as a new god for new mysteries in a new type of cult association appropriate to the different social and cultural environment of the Roman Empire? Was he &ldquothe same&rdquo merely in the weaker sense that he was re-outfitted with Iranian trappings sufficient to authenticate him as &ldquoPersian&rdquo in his new context?

Two statements at least may be made with some confidence about the century-long scholarly controversy over these questions: first, that at the beginning of the third millennium there is still no consensus secondly, that in the last three decades the balance of opinion has shifted, rightly or wrongly, in favor of re-invention over continuity.

What one might call the &ldquodefault&rdquo transmission scenario (at least for the first two thirds of the twentieth century) was propounded by the founder of modern Mithraic studies, Franz Cumont, in 1899 (see also Cumont 1903). For Cumont, Mithraism in the West was Romanized Mazdaism, thus still at its core a Persian religion, though one which had undergone extensive metamorphoses in its passage first through Chaldaea, where it acquired its astrological overlay and the syncretic assimilation to Mithra of the Babylonian Sun god &Scaronama&scaron and secondly through Anatolia and the culture of the Magusaeans, the Hellenized Magi of the Iranian diaspora (on whom see Bidez and Cumont 1938, Beck 1991), where it acquired a Stoic cosmology of sorts, especially in its eschatology (on which see Cumont 1931, Beck 1995).

In assessing Cumont&rsquos and later scholars&rsquo arguments for transmission, one must keep in mind the two types of evidence deployed: first, common traits, i.e. similarity of the features of Mithras and Mithras-worship in the West with those of Mithra and Mithra-worship in the East to the point that coincidental re-invention in the West would cease to be a credible hypothesis secondly, evidence of actual intermediate stages in the East-West transfer. We begin here with the latter. It is the stronger of the two types of evidence, but in volume the more meager. The evidence, and some of the inferences drawn from them, are as follows. 1) Plutarch (late first century CE), in Life of Pompey 24, states that the Cilician pirates who were vanquished by Pompey in the mid 60&rsquos BCE &ldquocelebrated certain secret rites of initiation (Greek teletas), of which those of Mithras have survived up to now&rdquo (or &ldquoas far as here,&rdquo i.e. Rome: his Greek phrase mechri deuro is ambiguous). It is possible, but not certain, that these &lsquoinitiations&rsquo were a prototype of the Roman mysteries of Mithras. (For contra, see Francis 1975.). 2) Mithras &mdash moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god Helios &mdash was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I (q.v.), king of the small but prosperous buffer state of Commagene (q.v.) in the mid first century BCE. It is improbable in the extreme that this cult played no part in the transmission of Mithra-worship westwards, although nothing about it compels one to accept that it was a prototype of the Roman mysteries. So far, nothing about the recently discovered mithraeum at Doliche (see Schütte-Maischatz and Winter 2000) suggests that its cult relief is other than a product of second or third century CE Mithraism. (On the royal cult of Commagene and the role of Mithras therein, see Boyce 1991: pp. 309-51 Dörner 1975 1978 Duchesne-Guillemin 1978a Jacobs 2000 Merkelbach 1984: pp. 50-72 Schwertheim 1979 Wagner 1983 2000 2000a Waldmann 1991. For a scenario of transmission incorporating the Commagenian royal cult and the royal family of subsequent generations, see Beck 1998.) 3) While archaeology has (as yet) unearthed no evidence in Anatolia for an intermediate form of Mithras-worship which is unambiguously the precursor of the Roman mystery cult, several atypical monuments and inscriptions from this area (as well as from Crimea to the north across the Black Sea) make it entirely plausible that such intermediate forms may well have existed, and hence that Anatolia in the larger sense, not just Commagene, played some part in Mithraism&rsquos westward transmission. Cumont&rsquos Magusaeans (see above), though real enough in their own right, are no longer regarded as the conduit for Mithraism. (The Cumontian scenario was first challenged by Wikander 1951 subsequently by Gordon 1975 Beck 1991: pp. 539-50.) There are however other plausible scenarios, some (e.g. Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9 Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90) involving the Iranian diaspora in Anatolia. (On Mithras-worship in Anatolia and its atypical remains, and for theories of transmission through Anatolia, see Beck 1984: pp. 2018-19, 2071-3 Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90 Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9 Cumont: 1939 Gordon 1978: pp. 159-64, 169-71 Gordon 1994: pp. 469-71 Schwertheim 1979 Will 1955: pp. 144-69 Will 1978: pp. 527-8.) 4) In Syria it is the absence of data on any intermediary form of Mithraism that is remarkable (a Chestertonian &ldquodog which did not bark&rdquo). With the single exception of the recently discovered Huwarti mithraeum, the few actual mithraea and the monuments lacking known provenance which have been recovered there exemplify either the norms of western Mithraism or minor variations on those norms. The Huwarti mithraeum, moreover, dates to the final decades of the fourth century CE. Accordingly, it speaks of the local redefinition of a religion in its final years, not of &ldquoa road not taken&rdquo in its formative years. Mithraism in Syria was not a transitional phase intermediate between East and West, but a back-formation from the West in the East. Even the mithraeum at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, at the easternmost margins of the Roman empire, proved no exception. Arguably, its only significant Iranian feature is the fresco of a pair of enthroned elders in local ceremonial garb with scrolls and canes. These Cumont identified as Zoroaster and Ostanes but they could as well be the Fathers of this particular Mithraic community at the time. (On Mithraism in Syria, see Roll 1977 Downey 1978 also the proceedings of the Colloquium &ldquoMithra en Syrie,&rdquo Lyon, November 2000, forthcoming in Topoi, which will include discussion of the Huwarti mithraeum. On the Dura mithraeum, see Cumont 1975 Beck 1984: pp. 214-17.) 5) In a description of Zoroastrian dualism which he inserted into his important essay On Isis and Isiris (46-7), Plutarch speaks of Mithras as &ldquoin the middle&rdquo (meson) between the good Horomazes and the evil Areimanius, adding &ldquoand this is why the Persians call the Mediator Mithras.&rdquo This, it is generally agreed, does not ascribe moral neutrality to Mithras rather he is the referee, arbiter, or judge between the two warring parties. However, even if the clause is more than Plutarch&rsquos own gloss, it speaks not of transitional Mithraism but of Mithra in the context of a collateral form of Zoroastrianism known to that learned Greek author. (On the passage and its interpretation, see de Jong 1997: pp. 171-7 on Mithra as judge, see Shaked 1980.) 6) The final piece of evidence which speaks directly to the question of transfer is the report of the state visit of Tiridates of Armenia to Rome to be crowned by Nero. At the coronation Tiridates declared that he had come &ldquoin order to revere you [Nero] as Mithras&rdquo (Dio Cassius 63.5.2). In the same visit, according to Pliny (Natural History 30.1.6), Tiridates &ldquoinitiated him [Nero] into magical feasts&rdquo (magicis cenis). Since Tiridates had brought Magi in his retinue, it is likely that the &ldquofeasts&rdquo were &ldquoMagian&rdquo rather than &ldquomagical&rdquo in the contemporary Roman sense. In the Cumontian scenario this episode cannot mark the definitive moment of transfer, for Mithraism in that scenario was already established in Rome, albeit on a scale too small to have left any trace in the historical or archaeological record. Nevertheless, it could have been a spur to Mithraism&rsquos emergence on to the larger stage of popular appeal. Perhaps, too, it affected in some way the development of Mithraism&rsquos central rite, the cult meal (see above). (On the episode and its implications for Mithraism, see Cumont 1933 for an alternative scenario which places the cult&rsquos institution after this episode, Beck 2002.)

When we turn to the much ampler dossier of similarities between Iranian Mithra-worship and the Mithras-worship of the Roman mystery cult, we must keep in mind that arguments for continuity based on these similarities all imply that the similarities are so systematic and so detailed that a non-causal relationship is untenable. Necessarily, therefore, they entail some transfer scenario, whether or not they expound one explicitly. Arguments for Mithraism&rsquos invention or re-invention in the West, on the contrary, imply that the similarities are too slight and too haphazard to warrant a causal explanation. Accordingly, no transfer scenario is required beyond a certain awareness of &ldquooriental&rdquo wisdom among Mithraism&rsquos founders.

Of the latter position there is a strong and a weak form. The strong form, having noted the undeniable similarities, then describes the cult, its origins, and its early development entirely in terms of the socio-religious culture(s) of the Roman empire. A typical proponent of this strong form is M. Clauss (2000: pp. 3-8, 21-2), who locates the cult&rsquos origins and point of departure firmly in late first-century CE Rome. Not because it is wrong, but solely because it is not germane to the mandate of Encyclopaedia Iranica, there is no need to explore this version of Mithraic origins further.

Discontinuity&rsquos 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.

We may now turn finally to the similarities between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship and to the scholarship which has argued, in the Cumontian tradition, for significant continuity. (The scholarship up to the time of writing is surveyed in Beck 1984: pp. 2059-75).

Predictably, the similarities mostly cluster around the person of Mithra/Mithras (remarkably, the second two of the three given here are not so much similarities as inversions): (1) Roman Mithras was identified with the Sun (see above) Iranian Mithra was a god of the dawn light. When and how the Iranian god became the Sun, as eventually he did, has been much debated (Lommel 1962 Gershevitch 1975, Gnoli 1979, Lincoln 1982 see above on the solar Mithras of Commagene see below on M. Weiss&rsquos theory of the non-solarity of Mithra/Mithras both East and West). (2) Iranian Mithra was a god of cattle and pastures Roman Mithras was a &ldquocattle-thief&rdquo (explicitly so called, e.g. Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 40), all the more outrageous an inversion because Iranian Mithra was a god of righteousness whose very name means &ldquocontract.&rdquo (3) Most importantly, Roman Mithras, as his mightiest and most beneficent deed, sacrifices a bull (see above) while Iranian Mithra was not himself a bull-killer, the act of bull-killing does figure prominently in the Zoroastrian cosmological narratives. In the first instance it was an act of evil: Ahriman slew the primal Bull of creation. However, the destructive act was turned to good, when from the bull&rsquos sperm, purified in the moon, sprang the domestic animals. The second and future event is entirely beneficial. A savior figure, So&scaronyant, will sacrifice a bull from whose fat, mixed with hôm, the drink of corporal immortality will be prepared. The bull-killing of Mithras can be construed as the Roman translation of either &mdash or indeed of both &mdash of the Iranian cosmogonic and eschatological myths. Certain of the compositional details of the tauroctony resonate with the former: the bull&rsquos tail metamorphosed into the wheat ear, the scorpion at the bull&rsquos genitals, the presence of the Moon as well as the Sun.

The Pahlavi texts, notably the Bundahi&scaronn, which carry the Zoroastrian cosmological accounts are several centuries later than the Roman-era artifacts, i.e. the tauroctonies, which carry the western representation of the bull-killing. Accordingly, Iranizing interpretations of the tauroctony (for a survey of these, see Hinnells 1975a Beck 1984: pp. 2068-9, 2080-1) imply one of two scenarios, whether or not they make the choice explicitly. Either those who constructed the western Mysteries consciously altered the Zoroastrian cosmological myths which were already current in the form later attested by the Pahlavi sources or they took over and reproduced a collateral, non-Zoroastrian form of Iranian religion (Mazdaist or otherwise), current at the time but subsequently extinguished without trace, in which Mithra was the bull-killer. A version of the latter argues that what the western mysteries adopted was an offshoot of the Vedic tradition in which Mitra reluctantly slays the Soma (= Iranian Haoma) god (Lommel 1949). More persuasive, perhaps, than postulating a precise Iranian/Vedic genealogy for the tauroctonous Mithras is the argument that the Mithraic bull-killing, both as concept and as image, reflects a peculiarly Iranian ideology of sacrifice as a creative act undertaken by god, not man (Hinnells 1975a Turcan 1981 Turcan 2000: pp. 102-5) &mdash with the implication, presumably, that it is so because those who first imagined the icon in the West had at least something of that ideology in mind. (On a fascinating continuity into modern Zoroastrianism in Iran, see Boyce 1975.)

There is a further problem that complicates all transmission scenarios: how to accommodate the twin deities Cautes and Cautopates and the lion-headed god (both mentioned above). Are they part of the theological baggage transferred from Iran? The names of the twins may well be of Iranian origin (see Schwartz 1975 contra: Schmeja 1975: p. 20), for Roman Mithraism did in fact occasionally borrow genuinely Iranian words (see Gray 1926: pp. 89-99 Schmeja 1975), notably nama (= &ldquohail!&rdquo) and nabarzes (precise etymology disputed, see Schwartz 1975: pp. 422-3). That, however, does not extend to their functions in the theology of the western mysteries, which can be fully accounted for in solely western terms (Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The lion-headed god is more problematic, partly because his eventual place in the western cult&rsquos theology is as opaque as his provenance. (On the extant exemplars and their iconography, see Hinnells 1975b on the various interpretations and identifications, see Beck 1984: pp. 2086-9). Of the several identities proposed for the lion-headed god, two link him unambiguously with Iran. The first, propounded by Cumont (1899: p. 78 1903: pp. 107-10), identifies him as Zurvān, the god of infinite Time and the father and arbiter between the good Ohrmazd and the evil Ahriman. This would of course make Roman Mithraism the descendant of a Zurvanite branch of Mazdaism. Around this Iranian core accumulated the personae and attributes of various Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek deities, for the most part gods of Time (Pettazzoni 1954). The second Iranian identity, first proposed by I.F. Legge (1912-15), is Ahriman &mdash an outrageous choice were it not that the name Arimanius is attested in Mithraic epigraphy, although never in a context which makes it more than a possibility that the Mithraic lion-headed god was Ahriman (Duchesne-Guillemin 1955 idem, 1958-62 on discussions of the epigraphy and the relevant monuments, see Beck 1984: pp. 2034-5). If the Mithraic lion-headed god was indeed a descendant of the Iranian Ahriman, there is no need to assume, for that reason alone, that he retained an exclusively negative and evil nature, or that, in consequence, the Roman Mithraists were devil-worshippers on the side.

It would be impractical in a work of this scope to discuss every minute similarity which has been demonstrated or claimed between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship. (For a fuller summary, see Beck 1984: pp. 2056-89 for arguments stressing dissimilarities and discontinuities, see Colpe 1975 Drijvers 1978.) The time has come to review the principal scholarship which has argued for transmission and continuity based on the postulated similarities. The Cumontian &ldquodefault&rdquo scenario has already been described. Of the post-Cumontian scenarios, three argue for continuity in the strongest terms. A.D.H. Bivar (1998, and earlier studies mentioned there) argues that western Mithraism was but one of several manifestations of Mithra-worship current in antiquity across a wide swathe of Asia and Europe. L.A. Campbell (1968) argues in the Cumontian tradition that western Mithraism replicated, through a thin disguise and with certain Graeco-Roman admixtures, a sometimes extraordinarily detailed and learned form of Zoroastrian Mazdaism. A continuity as thoroughgoing, though not quite so systematic ideologically, was proposed in several studies by G. Widengren (1965: pp. 222-32 1966 1980).

Starting from the dissimilarities between Roman Mithraism and Zoroastrian Mazdaism, the most obvious of which are of course the different supreme deities in the two systems and the different agents and intents of the bull-killing (discussed above), scholarship on Iranian Mithra-worship has also looked for and found closer analogies with Mithraism in pre-Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian Iranian religion &mdash and beyond that in Vedic religion. The strength of hypotheses based on the analogies with pre-/non-Zoroastrian systems is that they do not need to postulate a deliberate adaptation of Zoroastrianism into western Mithraism their weakness is that they have to postulate instead the persistence in western Iran of an early collateral Indo-European form of Mithra-worship, ready for easy translation into Roman Mithraism, for which there is no direct evidence. P.G. Kreyenbroek (1994), by comparing cosmogonies (Mithraic similar to non/pre-Zoroastrian both of these dissimilar to Zoroastrian), has advanced perhaps the most persuasive transmission scenario of this type to date. M. Weiss (1996, 1998) argues that Roman Mithras continues a very early Iranian and Vedic conception of Mithra/Mitra as the Nachthimmel, the starry heavens, an hypothesis entailing the awkward conception of a Mithras who is wholly distinct from the Sun god.

Lastly, there are certain works specifically on Iranian religion, in addition to those of Widengren (1960, 1965) already mentioned, which discuss aspects of western Mithras or Mithraism in terms which assert or imply a fair measure of continuity: Gray 1926: pp. 89-99 Gershevitch 1959: pp. 61-72 Zaehner 1961: pp. 97-144 Duchesne-Guillemin 1962: pp. 248-57.

(abbreviation, JMS = Journal of Mithraic Studies). R.L. Beck, &ldquoMithraism since Franz Cumont,&rdquo Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp. 2002-115.

Idem, Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, Leiden, 1988.

Idem, &ldquoThus Spake Not Zarathu&scarontra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Greco-Roman World,&rdquo in Boyce and Grenet 1991 (see below), pp. 491-565.

Idem &ldquoIn the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony,&rdquo in Hinnells 1994 (see below), pp. 29-50.

Idem, &ldquoDio Cocceianus,&rdquo Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 7, 1995, p. 421.

Idem, &ldquoThe Mysteries of Mithras,&rdquo in J.S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson (eds), Voluntary Associations in the Ancient World, London, 1996, pp. 176-85.

Idem, &ldquoThe Mysteries of Mithras: A new account of their genesis,&rdquo Journal of Roman Studies 88, 1998, pp. 115-28.

Idem, &ldquoRitual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New evidence from a cult vessel,&rdquo JRS 90, 2000, pp. 145-80.

Idem, &ldquoHistory into Fiction: The metamorphoses of the Mithras myths,&rdquo Ancient Narrative 1, 2001-02, pp. 283-300.

U. Bianchi ed., Mysteria Mithrae, Leiden, 1979.

Bianchi 1979a &ldquoThe Religio-Historical Question of the Mysteries of Mithra,&rdquo in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 3-60.

J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les Mages hellénisés, 2 vols, Paris, 1938 (repr. 1973).

A.D.H. Bivar, The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature, New York, 1998.

M. Boyce, &ldquoMihragān among the Irani Zoroastrians,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 106-18.

Boyce 1991 M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism , Vol. 3, Leiden, 1991.

W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge MA, 1987.

L.A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, Leiden, 1968.

M. Clauss, Cultores Mithrae: Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes, Stuttgart, 1992.

Idem, The Roman Cult of Mithras, trans. R.L. Gordon, Edinburgh and New York, 2000.

C. Colpe, &ldquoMithra-Verehrung, Mithras-Kult und die Existenz iranischer Mysterien,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 378-405.

F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, Vol. 1, Brussels, 1899.

Idem, The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. T.J. McCormack, London, 1903 (repr. New York, 1956).

Idem, &ldquoLa fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux,&rdquo Revue de l&rsquoHistoire des Religions, 103, 1931, pp. 29-96.

Idem, &ldquoL&rsquoiniziazione di Nerone da parte di Tiridate d&rsquoArmenia,&rdquo Rivista di Filologia, NS 11, 1933, pp. 145-54.

Idem, &ldquoMithra en Asie Mineure,&rdquo in Anatolian Studies in Honour of W.H. Buckler, Manchester, 1939, pp. 67-76.

Idem, &ldquoThe Dura Mithraeum,&rdquo ed. and trans. E.D. Francis, in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 151-214.

A. de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature, Leiden, 1997.

F.K. Dörner, Kommagene, Antike Welt Sondernummer 1975.

Idem, &ldquoMithras in Kommagene,&rdquo in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed. 1978 (see below), pp. 123-33.

S.B. Downey, &ldquoSyrian Images of Mithras Tauroctonos,&rdquo in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 135-49.

H.J.W. Drijvers, &ldquoMithra at Hatra?&rdquo in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed., 1978, pp. 151-86.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin, &ldquoAhriman et le dieu suprême dans les mystères de Mithra,&rdquo Numen 2, 1955, pp. 190-5.

Idem, &ldquoAion et le léontocéphalique, Mithra et Ahriman,&rdquo La Nouvelle Klio 10-12, 1958-62, pp. 91-8.

Idem, La religion de l&rsquoIran ancien, Paris, 1962.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin ed., Études Mithiaques, Leiden, 1978.

Idem, 1978a &ldquoIran and Greece in Commagene,&rdquo in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 187-99.

E.D. Francis, &ldquoPlutarch&rsquos Mithraic Pirates,&rdquo in Cumont 1975, pp. 207-10.

I. Gershevitch, The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge, 1959.

Idem, Die Sonne das Beste,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 68-89.

G. Gnoli, &ldquoSol Persice Mithra,&rdquo in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 725-40.

R.L. Gordon, &ldquoMithraism and Roman Society: Social factors in the explanation of religious change in the Roman empire,&rdquo Religion 2, 1972, pp. 92-121.

Idem, &ldquoFranz Cumont and the Doctrines of Mithraism,&rdquo in Hinnells, ed., 1975, pp. 215-48.

Idem, &ldquoThe Date and Significance of CIMRM 593,&rdquo JMS 2, 1978, pp. 148-74* (* = reprinted in Gordon 1996). Gordon 1980a, &ldquoReality, Evocation, and Boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras,&rdquo JMS 3, 1980 pp. 19-99*. Gordon 1980b, &ldquoPanelled Complications,&rdquo JMS 3, 1980, pp. 200-27*.

Idem, &ldquoWho worshipped Mithras?&rdquo Journal of Roman Archaeology 7, 1994, pp. 459-74.

R. L. Gordon, Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World: Studies in Mithraism and religious art, Aldershot UK, 1996.

L.H. Gray, The Foundations of the Iranian Religions, Bombay, 1926.

J.R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies, 2 vols (consecutive pagination), Manchester, 1975.

Idem, 1975a, &ldquoReflections on the Bull-Slaying Scene,&rdquo in Hinnells, ed., 1975, pp. 290-312.

Idem, 1975b, &ldquoReflections on the Lion-Headed Figure in Mithraism,&rdquo in Monumentum H.S. Nyberg, Acta Iranica, Ser. 2, Vol. 1, Leiden, pp. 333-69.

Idem, &ldquoThe Iconography of Cautes and Cautopates,&rdquo JMS 1, 1976, pp. 36-67.

J.R. Hinnells ed., Studies in Mithraism, Rome, 1994.

S. Insler, &ldquoA New Interpretation of the Bull-Slaying Motif,&rdquo in M.B. de Boer and T.A. Edridge eds, Hommages à Maarten J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 1978, pp. 519-38.

B. Jacobs, Die Herkunft und Entstehung der römischen Mithrasmysterien: Überlegungen zur Rolle des Stifters und zu den astronomischen Hintergründen der Kultlegende, Konstanz, 1999.

Idem, &ldquoDie Religionspolitik des Antiochus I. von Kommagene,&rdquo in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 45-9.

J.P. Kane, &ldquoThe Mithraic Cult Meal in its Greek and Roman Environment,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 313-51.

P.G. Kreyenbroek, &ldquoMithra and Ahreman in Iranian Cosmogonies,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 175-82.

I.F. Legge, &ldquoThe Lion-Headed God of the Mithraic Mysteries,&rdquo Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 34, 1912, pp. 125-42 37, 1915, 151-62.

W. Liebeschuetz, &ldquoThe Expansion of Mithraism among the Religious Cults of the Second Century,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 195-216.

B. Lincoln, &ldquoMithra(s) as Sun and Savior,&rdquo in U. Bianchi and M.J. Vermaseren eds., La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell&rsquoImpero Romano, Leiden, 1982, pp. 505-26.

H. Lommel, &ldquoMithra und das Stieropfer,&rdquo Paideuma 3, 1949, pp. 207-18.

Idem, &ldquoDie Sonne das Schlechteste?&rdquo Oriens 15, 1962, pp. 360-73.

L.H. Martin, &ldquoReflections on the Mithraic Tauroctony as Cult Scene,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 217-228.

R. Merkelbach, Mithras, Königstein/Ts., 1984.

R. Pettazzoni, &ldquoThe Monstrous Figure of Time in Mithraism,&rdquo in Essays in the History of Religions, trans. H.J. Rose, Leiden, 1954.

I. Roll, &ldquoThe Mysteries of Mithras in the Roman Orient,&rdquo JMS 2, 1977, pp. 18-52.

H. Schmeja, Iranisches und Griechisches in den Mithrasmysterien, Innsbruck, 1975.

A. Schütte-Maischatz and E. Winter, &ldquoKultstätten der Mithrasmysterien in Doliche,&rdquo in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 93-99.

M. Schwartz, &ldquoCautes and Cautopates, the Mithraic Torchbearers,&rdquo in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 406-23.

E. Schwertheim, Mithras: Seine Denkmäler und sein Kult, Antike Welt Sondernummer 1979.

G. Sfameni Gasparro, &ldquoIl mitraismo . &rdquo in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 299-384.

S. Shaked, &ldquoMihr the Judge,&rdquo Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 2, 1980, pp. 1-31.

R. Turcan, &ldquoLe sacrifice mithriaque: innovations de sens et de modalités,&rdquo Entretiens sur l&rsquoantiquité classique (Fondation Hardt) 27, 1981, pp. 341-80.

Idem, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000.

D. Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, New York, 1989.

M. J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, 2 vols, The Hague, 1956-60.

Idem, Mithra, ce dieu mystérieux., trans. M. Léman and L. Gilbert, Paris, 1960 (English translation by T. and V. Megaw, Mithras, the Secret God, London, 1963).

Idem, Mithriaca I: The Mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere, Leiden, 1971.

R. Vollkommer, &ldquoMithras,&rdquo Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 6.1, pp. 583-626 (text), 6.2, pp. 325-68 (plates), 1992.

J. Wagner, &ldquoDynastie und Herrscherkult in Kommagene,&rdquo Istanbuler Mitteilungen 33, 1983, pp. 177-224.

J. Wagner ed., Gottkönige am Euphrat: Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene, Mainz, 2000.

Wagner 2000a = &ldquoDie Könige von Kommagene und ihr Herrscherkult,&rdquo in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 11-25.

H. Waldmann, Der Kommagenische Mazdaismus, Tübingen, 1991.

M. Weiss, Als Sonne Verkant &mdash Mithras, Osterburken, 1996.

Idem, &ldquoMithras, der Nachthimmel: Eine Dekodierung der römischen Mithras-Kultbilder nit Hilfe des Awesta,&rdquo Traditio, 53, 1998, pp. 1-36.

L.M. White, Building God&rsquos House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Baltimore, 1990.

G. Widengren, Die Religionen Irans, Stuttgart, 1965.

Idem, &ldquoThe Mithraic Mysteries in the Greco-Roman World, with special regard to their Iranian background,&rdquo Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Anno 363, Quad. 76, 1966, pp. 433-55.

Idem, &ldquoReflections on the Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries,&rdquo in Perennitas: Studi in honore di Angelo Brelich, Rome, 1980.

S. Wikander, &ldquoÉtudes sur les mystères de Mithras,&rdquo Vetenskapssocieteten i Lund, Årsbok 1951, pp. 5-56.

E. Will, Le relief cultuel gréco-romain, Paris, 1955.

Idem, &ldquoOrigine et nature du Mithriacisme,&rdquo in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 527-36.

R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961.

S. Zwirn, &ldquoThe Intention of Biographical Narration on Mithraic Cult Images,&rdquo Word and Image 5, 1989, pp. 2-18.

Constantine the Great, the pagan Christian

The Sunday-worship had further become stronger during the time of Constantine the Great.

Constantine was a well-known worshipper of the sun god Sol Invictus.

According to stories, he converted to Christianity after winning his battle against the Roman Emperor Maxentius in A.D. 312. Before the battle, it was said that he saw a vision of a fiery cross in the sky, which encouraged him and became victorious.

After almost a decade, he made a proclamation that the day of worship should be done on Sunday and not Saturday.

It was at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that Emperor Constantine made Sunday the official day of worship for the entirety of the Roman Empire.

He chose Sunday, not because he wants to follow God, but because it was the day Sol Invictus was being worshipped!

His proclamation was as follows:

“On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time [A.D. 321]” (Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3).

With this proclamation, Constantine became a master of syncretism— the practice of combining pagan worship with true Christian worship.

Since then, syncretism has become a tool for the Roman Catholic Church to conquer pagans and gentiles and put them under control with the use of religious deception.

Sadly, even after the Great Reformation, Christians who left the Roman Catholic Church were never able to revert back to the Biblical Sabbath. Instead, they followed in the footsteps of their mother church.

"A Study of Mithraism"

During the first semester of his second year at Crozer, King wrote this paper for Enslin’s course on Greek religion. Mithraism, a sect of Zoroastrianism characterized by the worship of Mithra as the defender of the truth, was a monotheistic mystery religion prevalent in the Roman empire before the acceptance of Christianity in the fourth century. Followers of Mithra became less common after the Roman emperors banned their cults, and Christianity gained the popularity that once belonged to Mithraism. Enslin gave the essay an A and wrote: “This is an exceedingly good paper. You have given a very complete picture of the essential details and you have presented this in a balanced and restrained way. And furthermore you know how to write. You should go a long way if you continue to pay the price.”

The Greco-Roman world in which the early church developed was one of diverse religions. The conditions of that era made it possible for these religions to sweep like a tidal wave over the ancient world. The people of that age were eager and zealous in their search for religious experience. The existence of this atmosphere was vitally important in the development and eventual triumph of Christianity.

These many religions were not alike in every respect to draw this conclusion would lead to a gratuitous and erroneous supposition. But it is to be noticed that they possessed many fundamental likenesses (1) All held that the initiate shared in symbolic (sacramental) fashion the experiences of the god. (2) All had secret rites for the initiated. (3) All offered mystical cleansing from sin. (4) All promised a happy future life for the faithful.[Footnote:] Enslin, Christian Beginnings, pp. 187, 188.

It is not at all surprising in view of the wide and growing influence of these religions that when the disciples in Antioch and elsewhere preached a crucified and risen Jesus they should be regarded as the heralds of another mystery religion, and that Jesus himself should be taken for the divine Lord of the cult through whose death and resurrection salvation was to be had.

It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied. Even Christian apologist had to admit that fact. For an instance, in the mystery-religions identification between the devotee and the Lord of the cult was supposed to be brought about by various rites of initiation the taurobolium, or bath of blood the eating of flesh of the sacrifical beast and the like. Now there was something of this in Paul too, for he thought of the believer as buried with Christ in baptism and as feeding upon him in the eucharist. This is only one of many examples that I could give to prove the similarity between the developing Christian Church and the Mystery Religions.

This is not to say that a Saint Paul or a Saint John sat down and copied these views verbatim. But after being in contact with these surrounding religions and hearing certain doctrines expressed, it was only natural for some of these views to become a part of their subconscious minds. When they sat down to write they were expressing consciously that which had dwelled in their subconscious minds. 1 It is also significant to know that Roman tolerance had favoured this great syncretism of religious ideas. Borrowing was not only natural but inevitable.

One of the most interesting of these ancient cults was Mithraism, which bore so many points of resemblance to Christianity that it is a challenge to the modern student to investigate these likenesses and learn more about them. Mithraism is perhaps the greatest example of paganism’s last effort to reconcile itself to the great spiritual movement which was gaining such sturdy influence with its purer conception of God.[Footnote:] Dill, Roman Society From Nero to Marcus Aurelius, p. 585. Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and Orientalist, expressed the opinion that Mithraism would have been the religion of the modern world if anything had occured to halt or destroy the growth of Christianity in the early centuries of its existence. All this goes to show how important Mithraism was in ancient times.

The present study represents an attempt to provide a survey of the general character of the Mithraic religion. The main source of reference for this study was the magnificent work of Cumont. In order to give a comprehensive picture of this mystery cult, I will discuss four points:

  1. The origin and dissemination of Mithraism
  2. The doctrines of Mithraism
  3. The liturgy of Mithraism
  4. The influence of Mithraism on Christianity

The Origin and
Dissemination of

The history of Mithraism lies deep in the roots of the past. Documents which belong to the fourteenth century before Christ have been found in the Hittite capital of Boghaz Keui, in which the names of Mithra, Vanuna, Indra, and the Heavenly Twins are recorded. 2 It is also known that they were written long before the separation of the Indian and Iranian races. But to give the exact origin of this cult and to determine exactly where Mithra came from would be merely conjecture.

Many have held the opinion that Mithra came originally from the high plateuas of the Hindukush 3 and the differences in his nature, when he is found later in India and Iran, were due to environmental influences in the two distinctly different areas. In the Vedas he was associated with Varuna and was invoked together with him as a light god. The Iranians, however, placed Mithra in the position of Archangel. Although Ahura Mazda was the supreme god, he created Mithra equal to himself and made him chief among the yazatas. Evidence of his exalted position lies in the fact that the longest yasht, eight times longer than that in honour of Ahura Mazda, is dedicated to Mithra.[Footnote:] Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism, p. 183. He possessed many attributes, the most important being his office of defender of truth and all good things. In the Avesta,[Footnote:] This is the sacred book of the religion of Iran. Mithra is represented as the genius of celestial light. He emerges from the rocky summits of eastern mountains at dawn, and goes through heaven with a team of four white horses when the night falls he still illumines the surface of the earth “ever walking ever watchful.” He is not sun or moon or any star, but a spirit of light, ever wakeful, watching with a hundred eyes. He hears all and sees all: none can deceive him.[Footnote:] Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, pp. 2, 3. 4 Mithra was the god of wide pastures and the giver of gifts. He was worthy of sacrifice and worship and desired the respect and prayer of the faithful, on whom he bestowed bounteous gifts. On the other hand, he was a warrior of violent and bitter nature the forces of evil were his enemies, and he joined with Sraosha (Obedience) and Rashnu (Justice) in opposing them.

The fame of Mithra spread as the Persian empire expanded, and he became particularly strong in Asia Minor. Many of the Persian Kings grew very fond of Mithra and sponsored worship of him. It was during this time that the worship of Mithra developed into an independent religion. It is interesting to know that as Mithraism was spreading through the Persian empire, it was constantly borrowing ideas from other cultures. When it came in contact with Semitic star worship, it assimilated much of it as well as some of the mythology of ancient Babylon. Also the cult incorporated many local practices and ideas from Asia Minor. Finally it was influenced to a certain extent by Hellenistic culture. After having consolidated its theology and drawing into its ranksxmany converts in Asia Minor and Persia, Mithraism had almost reached its climax. It was, however, the latest religion of its kind to become popular in the Roman empire.[Footnote:] Mithraism was not popular in the Roman empire until ca. a.d. 100.

The greatest agency of propagation of Mithraism was the army. Under the Roman policy of conscription troops from conquered lands were sent to serve in other parts of the empire. Among the forces which were drawn up in that fashion were soldiers from such places as Cappadocia, Commagene, Pontus and Armenia, where Mithraism was extremely popular. When these men were sent out to foreign outpost to serve in the Roman army they did not forget their religious customs. Converts were quickly gained within the army. Evidences of the diffusion of Mithraism by the army has been found in Scotland, Africa, Spain, Germany, and almost every locality where Roman troops were sent.

A second means of spreading Mithraism in the empire was through slaves who were sent to Italy from Asia Minor. Many of these slaves became public servants in the great bureaus of the government. It was these slaves who were missionaries for Mirtha in Italy and who practiced his mysteries in the very heart of the Roman world.

There was a third group which spread the Mithraic religion. This group consisted of Syrian merchants who established trading posts throughout the empire. Cumont is of the opinion that most of these Syrians belonged to the upper classes and were not the true worshippers of Mithra. He argues that it was the slaves and servants of these merchants who were followers of Mithra and they introduced the religion to the inhabitants of maritime towns where their masters engaged in trading.[Footnote:] Cumont, op. cit., p. 63.

The great expansion of Mithraism in the ancient world can be traced to these three sources in almost every case. The slaves were forever looking for a better day, and they beleived that through worshipping Mithra that day would eventually come. As for the soldiers they found Mithraism very appealing because it offered them the protection of a deity who they believed would help them to be victorious in combat. After seeing these facts it is very easy to understand why these worshippers were so zealous in spreading their religion. It was a part of their total make-up. To argue that many were drawn into this cult through curiosity alone is certainly an unwarranted assumption. To be sure, the iniatory rites (as we will see later in the paper) were so strenuous that only the sincere and earnest converts would have wished to take part in them.

After the cult became popular throughout the Roman Empire, it received many converts from the upper classes. It had been spread by slaves and freedmen for the most part, but it did remain a religion of the lower classes alone. As stated above, even the emperors gave it their approval.

Whether the religion of Mithra gained great influence in Greece is still under discussion by many scholars. There seems to be many conflicting statements about this question. 5 Cumont writes, “It may be said, in a general way, that Mithra remained forever excluded from the Hellenic world. The ancient authors of Greece speak of him only as a foreign god worshipped by the kings of Persia.”[Footnote:] Cumont, op. cit., p. 9. 6 Dhalla says that Mithra “is the only Iranian divinity who won popularity for himself in Greece.”[Footnote:] Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism, p. 303. George Foot Moore says of Mithraism that “it never took root in the lands of Hellenistic culture.”[Footnote:] Moore, History of Religion, Vol. 1, p. 600. The majority of opinions seem to support the fact that Mithraism was excluded from Hellenized countries. It is probable that the name of Mithra was well-known in these lands, but the inhabitants declined to worship him.

The worship of Mithra, which had had its very first introduction into the western part of the empire only a short time before the birth of Christ and had not begun to expand until the end of the first century, became widespread and popular in a remarkably short time. It was during the same period, of course, that christianity was beginning to develop and reach out into new territories. The question immediately arises, why did the two religions not conflict?

One reason that the two religions did not conflict in the early years of their growth in the Roman Empire is that their activities for a while took place in different geographical areas. Another reason why these religions did not clash with each other was because each thought the other was too insignificant for serious competition. It is apparent, therefore, that geographically and socially these religions did not clash for a while.

The Doctrines
Of Mithraism

Unfortunately, there is practically no literary evidence for the inner history of Mithraism. A few scattered facts may be gathered from the remains of Christian polemics, a great deal of information about the overall character of the ideas to which they gave expression may be gotten from the writings of Neo-Platonists and a close examination of mystical papyri. 7 Fortunately, these numerous monuments have been synthesized in the scholarly work of Cumont. From this work we are able to get with a degree of certainty the mythological and eschatological teaching of this cult. For the moment let us look into these teachings.

First we turn to the cosmogonic views of Mithraism. It is interesting to know how Mithraic preachers sought to explain the origin of the world. They explained it in terms of a series of successive generations. The first principle begot a primordial couple, the Heaven and the Earth and the Earth, who was impregnated by her brother, gave birth to the vast Ocean. This group formed the supreme triad of the Mithraic Panthean. 8

At times these cosmic divinities were personified in quite different names from their original ones. The Heaven was called Ormazd or Jupiter, the Earth was identified with Spenta-Armaiti or Juno, and the Ocean was called Apam-Napat or Neptune. 9

As was stated above, Jupiter (Heaven) and Juno (Earth) were the sovereign couple. They gave birth not only to Neptune (Ocean) who became their peer, but to many other immortals. Shahrivar or Mars, Valcun or Atar, Bacchus or Haoma, Silvanus or Drvaspa, Diana or Luna are but a few of the long line of immortals. These innumerable multitude of divinities composed the celestial court.[Footnote:] Cumont, op. cit., pp. 111, 112. This in short sums up the cosmogonic views of the Mithraic religion.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was another view which was very prominent in Mithraism. Mithraism insisted that the soul was immortal and its temporary sojourn in a body was a period of trial. The worshipper’s action determined the posthumous fate of his soul. Of course, he was not alone in his attempt to attain purity and truth Mithra stood by his side as a divine helper. 10

The background of Mithraic eschatology was provided by that theory of the relation of the soul to the universe. It was believed that the soul descended at birth the eternal home of light through the gate of Cancer, passing down through the seven planetary spheres to earth. As the soul passed through each stage it accumulated more and more impurity. It was possible for the initiate, while in his trial period on earth, to gain purity through the practice of courage and truth. 11

After death there was judgment of the soul. Mithra, the protector of the truth, presided over the judgment court. If the soul had lived an impure life, it was dragged down to the infernal depths, where it received a thousand tortures. If, on the contrary, its good qualities outweighed the bad, it rises through the gate of caprocorn, passing in reverse order through the planetary sphere. At each stage the impurities which the soul picked up in its downward flow gradually diminished. The end of this great rise was supreme happiness and eternal bliss.

The doctrine of resurrection of the flesh was also a basic belief in the Mithraic circle. It was believed that the long struggle between the principles of good and evil would one day end. At this time a great bull would reappear on earth and Mithra would redescend and reawaken men to life. All would come forth from the tombs with the same appearance they had on earth. All mankind would unite into a great union, at which time the god of truth would separate the good from the bad. Then the great bull would be sacrificed. The fat of this bull would be mingled with the consecrated wine, and would be offered to the just. From this they would receive immortality. After this great event, Jupiter-Ormazd would cause a great fire to fall from heaven which would destroy all the wicked. The Spirit of Darkness would be completely destroyed. The universe would then enjoy eternal happiness and peace.

There was another doctrine which remained fundamental to Mithraism throughout its history. It was the doctrine of dualism. This doctrine was taken from Zoroastrianism. This doctrine accounted for the problem of evil by supposing that the world was a battleground between the Good Principle, Ahura Mazda, and the Evil Principle, Ahriman. The powers of good were identified with Light or Day, and the powers of evil were identified with Darkness or Night. These two powers were in a state of perpetual war. It was Mithra, the spirit of light and truth who became naturally a celestial warrior on the side of Ahura Mazda.[Footnote:] Halliday, The Pagan Background of Early Christianity, pp. 285, 286. 12

It was many of these doctrines that became very influential in later years to the Christian religion. They molded the thinking of the ancient world.

According to a text of St. Jerome, there were seven degrees of initiation which the Mithraic convert passed through. At each stage he assumed a different name: (1) Raven, (2) Occult, (3) Soldier, (4) Lion, (5) Persian, (6) Runner of the sun, (7) and Father. It is probable that there were slight variations of names of the grades from East to West. Each grade had its appropriate mask and costume.

The taking of the first three degrees did not authorize the status of full participation in the Mysteries. These initiates were called the Servants. Only the Mystic who had received the Leontics could become a "Participant". At the top of this structure were the Fathers, who probably presided over the sacred ceremonies and had command over the lower classes. 13

It was possible to enter the lowest grades at infancy. Whether or not the initiate had to remain in each grade for a fixed length of time is not known. Cumont is of the opinion that the Fathers decided when the initiate was sufficiently prepared to move to the higher grade.[Footnote:] Cumont, op. cit., p. 156.

One of the prominent features in the ceremony of initiation was the sacrament (sacramentum) or military oath of loyalty to the service of the god and to the fellow members of the brotherhood. In this oath the initiate promised to depart from certain sins and follow a life of moral behavior. Moreover, he promised not to reveal to the uninitiated the rites and knowledge he was about to learn.

Although our knowledge of the liturgy of Mithraism is inevitably fragmentary, we know that there was a form of baptism designed to wash away the sins of the initiate. This rite was probably carried out by sprinkling holy water, or in an actual immersion. At another stage in the development the initiated was sealed with a brand in his forehead. It appears that this mark was burned with a red-hot iron. This ineffaceable imprint was always a reminder to the initiate of what he had vowed. In the grade of soldier, the initiate was offered a crown which he caused to fall on his shoulder, saying that Mithra was his only crown. In the grade of Lion, the initiate’s tongue and hands were purified with honey. 14

Another important Mithraic ceremony was the celebration of a communion service which was in memory of the last meal which Helios and Mithra partook together upon earth. 15 Here the celebrant took consecrated bread and mingled it with the juice of Haoma. It is quite obvious that only the initiate who had attained the degree of Lions could take this communion.

The worship services were carried on in chapels or Mithraea. These chapels were technically called “caves” spelaea. They were probably called “caves” because they were either constructed in natural caves or in subterranean buildings. In most of the Mithraea there was a portico which led into a second sacristry, where the ritual dresses were probably kept. Beyond the sacristry lay the shrine. It was here that most of the ritual was performed. On each side were benches where the new converts were probably seated. At the end of the building there was an apse, in which stood the relief of Mithra slaying the bull. It is probable that this was veiled with curtains. The walls of the building were very fascinating they were covered with paintings and mosaics of mystical designs. 16

The worship period was conducted by the priest, who bore the title of sacerdos. The priest was considered the intermediary between God and man. It was his duty to administer the sacraments. He also presided at the formal dedications. He probably had to see that a perpetual fire burned upon the altars. He addressed a prayer to the sun three times a day, at dawn, at noon, and at dusk. This, in short, gives the overall function of the priest.

It was a characteristic of Mithraism to be organized in small and apparently independent communities. In this community the individual had a right to hold property. For the management of the affairs of the community, officers were selected. The officers were masters (magistri) or president, the curators (curatores), the attorneys (defensores), and the patrons (patroni).

Mithraism possessed a characteristic that was unique and which for a time may have been an asset but in the end was probably a weakness. It was a cult for men only. In some cases young boys were taken into the lower orders, but under no circumstances were women admitted. Women were compelled to seek salvation in some other cult, for Mithraism excluded them entirely. “It has been surmised that the frequent juxtaposition of Mithraea (places of worship) and temples of the Magna Mater was due to the fact that the wives and daughters of the Mithraists were addicted to the worship of the latter.”[Footnote:] Moore, op. cit., p. 600. In the exclusion of women Mithraism missed “that ardent religiosity and fervent proselytism of devout women which had so large a share in pushing the fortunes of Isis and Cybele or in propagating the tenets of Christianity.”[Footnote:] Halliday, op. cit., p. 310.

The Influence of
Mithraism on Christianity

When Mithraism is compared with Christianity, there are surprisingly many points of similarity. Of all the mystery cults Mithraism was the greatest competitor of Christianity. The cause for struggle between these two religions was that they had so many traditions, practices and ideas that were similar and in some cases identical.

Many of the similarities between these two religions have already been alluded to, but there are many others of greater or lesser significance. The belief in immortality, a mediator between god and man, the observance of certain sacramental rites, the rebirth of converts, and (in most cases) the support of high ethical ideas were common to Mithraism as well as to Christianity. In fact, the comparison became so evident that many believed the Christian movement itself became a mystery cult. “Jesus was the divine Lord. He too had found the road to heaven by his suffering and resurrection. He too had God for his father. He had left behind the secret whereby men could achieve the goal with him.”[Footnote:] Enslin, op. cit., p. 190.

There were many other points of similarity between these two groups. Let us look at a few of them: (1) Both regarded Sunday as a holy day. 17 (2) December 25 came to be considered as the anniversary of the birth of Mithra and Christ also. (3) Baptism and a communion meal were important parts of the ritual of both groups. (4) The rebirth of converts was a fundamental idea in the two cults. (5) The struggle with evil and the eventual triumph of good were essential ideas in both religions. (6) In both religions only initiates who passed through certain preliminary phases of introduction were admitted to the mysteries which brought salvation to converts. There were many more similarities between Christianity and Mithraism—most of them purely superficial. These which have been mentioned are largely only surface likenesses because the reasoning behind them is quite different, but the general effect is almost startling.

The sacraments of baptism and the eucharist have been mentioned as rites which were practiced both by christians and pagans. It is improbable, however, that either of these introduced into Christian practices by association with the mystery cults. The baptismal ceremony in both cases (christian and mystery) was supposed to have the effect of identifying the initiate with his saviour. But although baptism did not originate with the Christians, still it was not copied from the pagans. It seems instead to have been carried over from Jewish background and modified by the new ideas and beliefs of the Christians. The eucharist, likewise though similar in some respects to the communion meal of Mithraism, was not a rite borrowed from them. There are several explanations regarding the beginning of the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Some held that the sacrament was instituted by Jesus himself. Others saw it as an outgrowth from Jewish precedents. Still others felt that, after the death of Jesus, the disciples saw in their common meal an opportunity to hold a kind of memorial service for him.

On the whole, early Christians were not greatly concerned about the likenesses between the Mithraic cult and their own. They felt at first that these competitors were not worthy of consideration, and few references to them are found in Christian literature. When Mithraism became widespread and powerful, it attracted so much attention that certain Christian apologists felt the need to present an explanation for the similarities in their respective characteristics. The only one they could offer was quite naive, but it was in keeping with the trends of thought in that age. They maintained that it was the work of the devil who helped to confuse men by creating a pagan imitation of the true religion. 18

The greatest influence of Mithraism on Christianity lies in a different direction from that of doctrine and ritual. It lies in the fact that Mithraism paved the way for the presentation of Christianity to the world of that time. It prepared the people mentally and emotionally to understand the type of religion which Christianity represented. It was itself in varying degrees, an imperfect example of the Galilean cult which was to replace it. It encouraged the movement away from the state religions and the philosophical systems and toward the desire for personal salvation and promise of immortality. Christianity was truly indebted to Mithraism for this contribution, for it had done this part of the groundwork and thus opened the way for Christian missionary work.

That Christianity did copy and borrow from Mithraism cannot be denied, but it was generally a natural and unconscious process rather than a deliberate plan of action. It was subject to the same influences from the environment as were the other cults, and it sometimes produced the same reaction. The people were conditioned by the contact with the older religions and the background and general trend of the time.

Many of the views, while passing out of Paganism into Christianity were given a more profound and spiritual meaning by Christians, yet we must be indebted to the source. To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing.

<2>Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, The Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1910.

Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism, Oxford University Press N. Y., 1938 pp. 183–192.

<4)>Dill, Samuel, Roman Society From Nero To Marcus Aurelius, Macmillan and Co., 1905, pp. 585–626.

<5)>Enslin, Morton S., Christian Beginnings, Harper and Brothers Publishers N. Y. and London, 1938, pp. 186–200.

<(8)>Halliday, W. R., The Pagan Background of Early Christianity, The University Press of Liverpool, London, N.D., pp. 281–311.

<(10)>Moore, George F., History of Religions, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1913, pp. 357–405, 592–602.

1. King used similar phrasing in a paper written the previous year: “This is not to say that the pentateuch writers sat down and copied these views verbatim. The differences of expression attest to that fact. But after being in contact with these surrounding cultures and hearing certain doctrines expressed, it was only natural for some of these views to become a part of their subconscious minds. When they sat down to write they were expressing consciously that which had dwelled in their sub-conscious minds” (“Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East,” 14 September–24 November 1948, p. 163 in this volume).

2. W. R. Halliday, The Pagan Background of Early Christianity (London: University Press of Liverpool, n.d.), p. 283: “Documents which belong to the fourteenth century before Christ have been found in the Hittite capital of Boghaz Keui, in which the names of Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and the Heavenly Twins, the Nasatyas, are recorded.”

3. Enslin marked “Hindukush” and wrote that it was “more commonly written as two words.”

4. Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra (Chicago: Open Court, 1910), pp. 2–3: “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 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.”

5. Enslin underlined “many” and wrote in the margin: “It is pretty generally recognized that it never ‘took’ in Greece. Dhalla’s view is not widely held.”

6. The quotation is actually from page 33.

7. Halliday, Pagan Background, pp. 289–290: “It is profoundly to be regretted that we possess practically no literary evidence for the inner history of Mithraism, nor indeed of any of the pagan mystery religions of this period. A few random facts may be elicited from the obiter dicta of Christian polemic, a good deal of information about the general character of the ideas to which they gave expression may be gleaned from the difficult study of Gnosticism in its pagan and Christian forms, from the writings of the Neo-Platonists, and from the careful examination of magical papyri.”

8. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, p. 109: “The first principle, according to an ancient belief found in India as well as in Greece, begot a primordial couple, the Heaven and the Earth and the latter, impregnated by her brother, gave birth to the vast Ocean which was equal in power to its parents, and which appears to have formed with them the supreme triad of the Mithraic Pantheon.”

9. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, p. 111: “The Heavens were naught less than Ormazd or Jupiter, the Earth was identified with Spenta-Armalti or Juno, and the Ocean was similarly called Apam-Napat or Neptune.”

10. Halliday, Pagan Background, p. 294: “In Mithraism the soul was regarded as immortal, and its temporary sojourn in an earthly body was a period of trial. Upon the degrees of purity and truth which was attained by the worshipper, and upon the part played by him in fighting upon the side of Good, depended the posthumous fate of his soul. In this mortal life Mithras stands by the side of the initiate as a divine helper.”

11. Halliday, Pagan Background, pp. 294–295: “The background of Mithraic eschatology was provided by that theory of the relation of the soul to the universe.… The soul was thought to have descended at birth from the eternal home of light through the gate of Cancer, passing down through the seven planetary spheres to earth. At each stage it became more heavily weighted by accumulated impurity. During its time of trial upon earth came the opportunity to acquire purity through moral struggle, that is to say, by the conquest of passions and appetites and the practice of courage, endurance, fortitude, and truth.”

12. Halliday, Pagan Background, pp. 283–284: “The great Iranian prophet accounted for the problem of evil by supposing that the world was a battleground between the Good Principle, Ahura Mazda, and the Evil Principle, Ahriman. The powers of Good were identified with Light or Day in conflict with the powers of Evil, Darkness or Night, and Mithras, the spirit of light and truth, became naturally a celestial warrior on the side of Ahura Mazda.”

13. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, p. 155: “The taking of the first three degrees did not authorize participation in the Mysteries. These initiates, comparable to the Christian catechumens, were the Servants … Only the mystics that had received the Leontics became Participants … At the summit of the hierarchy were placed the Fathers, who appear to have presided over the sacred ceremonies (pater sacrorum) and to have commanded the other classes of the faithful.”

14. Halliday, Pagan Background, p. 304: “Our knowledge of the initiatory rites of Mithraism is inevitably fragmentary. We know that in this, as in many contemporary cults, a form of baptism represented the mystical washing away of sin. The initiated in certain grades were sealed upon the forehead with the mark of their calling, probably with a brand. At the initiation into the grade of Soldier, the neophyte was offered a crown which he renounced with the words ‘Mithras is my crown.’ The tongue and the hands of a Lion were purified with honey.”

15. Halliday, Pagan Background, p. 304: “One of the principal Mithraic ceremonies was the celebration of a communion service in memory, it was thought, of the last meal of which Helios and Mithra partook together upon earth.”

16. Halliday, Pagan Background, pp. 298–299: “The chapels or Mithraea in which the worship of the cult was carried on, were technically called ‘caves,’ spelaea, and were constructed either in a natural cave or, for obvious reasons, more often in a subterranean building which was made to resemble a cave.… In the most usual type of Mithraeum a portico led off the road into a vestibule, this led into a second sacristy, where probably the ritual dresses, etc., were kept beyond this again lay the shrine.… At the end of the building opposite to the entrance was an apse, in which stood the relief of Mithra slaying the bull. It would appear that this was normally veiled with curtains,… The walls of the building were covered with paintings and mosaics of mystical design.”

17. Enslin asked in the margin, “How early did Christians make this the [first?] day?”

18. The previous two paragraphs also appear in another essay by King, “Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity,” 29 November 1949–15 February 1950, pp. 309–310 in this volume.


  1. Judah


  2. Aegis

    Bravo, what are the right words ... wonderful thought

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