Mithraism, the worship of the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, Mithra, became early Christianity's most serious rival as the mystery cult rapidly spread from Syria and Anatolia throughout the western Mediterranean and into Gaul and Britain. Its cultic origins remain obscure.
Although the Persian god Mithra, the chief ally of Ahura Mazda, the force of good in later Zoroastrianism, is identical with the Roman deity, Western worship of Mithra had few connections with Zoroastrianism apart from its emphasis on the eternal struggle between good and evil. There were seven grades of initiation into the cult, completion of which conferred immortality. The most important ritual was the slaying of the bull, a reenactment of Mithra's killing of the cosmic bull of creation, which symbolized the conquest of evil and death. Astrology and sun worship also played a role in Mithraism.
Introduced into the West in the 1st century AD by Roman soldiers who had fought against the Parthians, the cult remained particularly popular among the military--the god embodied such soldierly values as victory, courage, and loyalty--and merchant classes. Women were excluded from the cult. One of the most powerful religious movements in the Roman Empire by the 4th century, Mithraism, along with other non-Christian sects, suffered persecution after the conversion of Constantine and gradually died out. Significantly, Mithra's birth was commemorated on December 25.
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Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, 2d rev. ed., trans. by Thomas J. McCormack (1956); Hinnells, J. R., ed., Mithraic Studies, 2 vols. (1975); Laeuchli, Samuel, ed., Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome (1967); Vermaseren, M. J., Mithras: The Secret God, trans. by Therese and Vincent Megaw (1963); Wynne-Tyson, Esme, Mithras (1958; repr. 1985).
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 repressive 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.
The origin of the cult of Mithra dates from the time that the 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 (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 amuch 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 north-west 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 chaldaei respectively) coexisted in the capital and Mithraism borrowed much from this intercourse. This modified Mithraism traveled farther north-westward 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 especially 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.
The first principle or highest God was according to Mithraism "Infinite Time"; this was called Aion or Saeculum, Kronos or Saturnus. This Kronos is none other than Zervan, an ancient Iranian conception, which survived the sharp dualism of Zoroaster; for Zervan was father of both Ormuzd and Ahriman and connected the two opposites in a higher unity and was still worshipped a thousand years later by the Manichees. This personified Time, ineffable, sexless, passionless, was represented by a human monster, with the head of a lion and a serpent coiled about his body. He carried a sceptre and lightning as sovereign god and held in each hand a key as master of the heavens. He had two pair of wings to symbolize the swiftness of time. His body was covered with zodiacal signs and the emblems of the seasons (i.e. Chaldean astrology combined with Zervanism). This first principle begat Heaven and Earth, which in turn begat their son and equal, Ocean. As in the European legend, Heaven or Jupiter (Oromasdes) succeeds Kronos. Earth is the Speñta Armaiti of the Persians or the Juno of the Westerns, Ocean is Apam-Napat or Neptune. The Persian names were not forgotten, though the Greek and Roman ones were habitually used. Ahura Mazda and Spenta Armaiti gave birth to a great number of lesser deities and heroes: Artagnes (Hercules), Sharevar (Mars), Atar (Vulcan), Anaitis (Cybele), and so on. On the other hand there was Pluto, or Ahriman, also begotten of Infinite Time. The Incarnate Evil rose with the army of darkness to attack and dethrone Oromasdes. They were however thrown back into hell, whence they escape, wander over the face of the earth and afflict man. It is man's duty to worship the four simple elements, water and fire, air and earth, which in the main are man's friends. The seven planets likewise were beneficent deities. The souls of men, which were all created together from the beginning and which at birth had but to descend from the empyrean heaven to the bodies prepared for them, received from the seven planets their passions and characteristics. Hence the seven days of the week were dedicated to the planets, seven metals were sacred to them, seven rites of initiation were made to perfect the Mithraist, and so on. As evil spirits ever lie in wait for hapless man, he needs a friend and saviour who is Mithra. Mithra was born of a mother-rock by a river under a tree. He came into the world with the Phrygian cap on his head (hence his designation as Pileatus, the Capped One), and a knife in his hand. It is said that shepherds watched his birth, but how this could be, considering there were no men on earth, is not explained. The hero-god first gives battle to the sun, conquers him, crowns him with rays and makes him his eternal friend and fellow; nay, the sun becomes in a sense Mithra's double, or again his father, but Helios Mithras is one god. Then follows the struggle between Mithra and the bull, the central dogma of Mithraism. Ahura Mazda had created a wild bull which Mithra pursued, overcame, and dragged into his cave. This wearisome journey with the struggling bull towards the cave is the symbol of man's troubles on earth. Unfortunately, the bull escapes from the cave, whereupon Ahura Mazda sends a crow with a message to Mithra to find and slay it. Mithra reluctantly obeys, and plunges his dagger into the bull as it returns to the cave. Strange to say, from the body of the dying bull proceeds all wholesome plants and herbs that cover the earth, from his spinal marrow the corn, from his blood the vine, etc. The power of evil sends his unclean creatures to prevent or poison these productions but in vain. From the bull proceed all useful animals, and the bull, resigning itself to death, is transported to the heavenly spheres. Man is now created and subjected to the malign influence of Ahriman in the form of droughts, deluges, and conflagrations, but is saved by Mithra. Finally man is well established on earth and Mithra returns to heaven. He celebrates a last supper with Helios and his other companions, is taken in his fiery chariot across the ocean, and now in heaven protects his followers. For the struggle between good and evil continues in heaven between the planets and stars, and on earth in the heart of man. Mithra is the Mediator (Mesites) between God and man. This function first arose from the fact that as the light-god he is supposed to float midway between the upper heaven and the earth. Likewise a sun-god, his planet was supposed to hold the central place amongst the seven planets. The moral aspect of his mediation between god and man cannot be proven to be ancient. As Mazdean dualists the Mithraists were strongly inclined towards asceticism; abstention from food and absolute continence seemed to them noble and praiseworthy, though not obligatory. They battled on Mithra's side against all impurity, against all evil within and without. They believed in the immortality of the soul, sinners after death were dragged off to hell; the just passed through the seven spheres of the planets, through seven gates opening at a mystical word to Ahura Mazda, leaving at each planet a part of their lower humanity until, as pure spirits, they stood before God. At the end of the world Mithra will descend to earth on another bull, which he will sacrifice, and mixing its fat with sacred wine he will make all drink the beverage of immortality. He will thus have proved himself Nabarses, i.e. "never conquered".
There were seven degrees of initiation into the mithraic mysteries. The consecrated one (mystes) became in succession crow (corax), occult (cryphius), soldier (miles), lion (leo), Persian (Perses), solar messenger (heliodromos), and father (pater). On solemn occasions they wore a garb appropriate to their name, and uttered sounds or performed gestures in keeping with what they personified. "Some flap their wings as birds imitating the sound of a crow, others roar as lions", says Pseudo-Augustine (Quaest. Vet. N. Test. In P.L., XXXIV, 2214). Crows, occults and soldiers formed the lower orders, a sort of catechumens; lions and those admitted to the other degrees were participants of the mysteries. The fathers conducted the worship. The chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called "Pater Patrum" or Pater Patratus." The members below the degree of pater called one another "brother," and social distinctions were forgotten in Mithraic unity. The ceremonies of initiation for each degree must have been elaborate, but they are only vaguely known -- lustrations and bathings, branding with red-hot metal, anointing with honey, and others. A sacred meal was celebrated of bread and haoma juice for which in the West wine was substituted. This meal was supposed to give the participants super-natural virtue. The Mithraists worshipped in caves, of which a large number have been found. There were five at Ostia alone, but they were small and could perhaps hold at most 200 persons. In the apse of the cave stood the stone representation of Mithra slaying the bull, a piece of sculpture usually of mediocre artistic merit and always made after the same Pergamean model. The light usually fell through openings in the top as the caves were near the surface of the ground. A hideous monstrosity representing Kronos was also shown. A fire was kept perpetually burning in the sanctuary. Three times a day prayer was offered the sun toward the east, south, or west according to the hour. Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra, and the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him as mediator. The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season. A Mithraic community was not merely a religious congregation; it was a social and legal body with its decemprimi, magistri, curatores, defensores, and patroni. These communities allowed no women as members. Women might console themselves by forming associtions to worship Anaitis-Cybele; but whether these were associated with Mithraism seems doubtful. No proof of immorality or obscene practices, so often connected with esoteric pagan cults, has ever been established against Mithraism; and as far as can be ascertained, or rather conjectured it had an elevating and invigorating effect on its followers. From a chance remark of Tertullian (De Praescriptione, xl) we gather that their "Pater Patrum" was only allowed to be married once, and that Mithraism had its virgines and continentes; such at least seems the best interpretation of the passage. If, however, Dieterich's Mithras's liturgy be really a liturgy of this sect, as he ably maintains, its liturgy can only strike us as a mixture of bombast and charlatanism in which the mystes has to hold his sides, and roar to the utmost of his power till he is exhausted, to whistle, smack his lips, and pronounce barbaric agglomerations of syllables as the different mystic signs for the heavens and the constellations are unveiled to him.
RELATION TO CHRISTIANITY
A similarity between Mithra and Christ struck even early observers, such as Justin, Tertullian, and other Fathers, and in recent times has been urged to prove that Christianity is but an adaptation of Mithraism, or at most the outcome of the same religious ideas and aspirations (e.g. Robertson, "Pagan Christs", 1903). Against this erroneous and unscientific procedure, which is not endorsed by the greatest living authority on Mithraism, the following considerations must be brought forward. (1) Our knowledge regarding Mithraism is very imperfect; some 600 brief inscriptions, mostly dedicatory, some 300 often fragmentary, exiguous, almost identical monuments, a few casual references in the Fathers or Acts of the Martyrs, and a brief polemic against Mithraism which the Armenian Eznig about 450 probably copied from Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) who lived when Mithraism was almost a thing of the past -- these are our only sources, unless we include the Avesta in which Mithra is indeed mentioned, but which cannot be an authority for Roman Mithraism with which Christianity is compared. Our knowledge is mostly ingenious guess-work; of the real inner working of Mithraism and the sense in which it was understood by those who professed it at the advent of Christianity, we know nothing. (2) Some apparent similarities exist; but in a number of details it is quite probable that Mithraism was the borrower from Christianity. Tertullian about 200 could say: "hesterni sumus et omnia vestra implevimus" ("we are but of yesterday, yet your whole world is full of us"). It is not unnatural to suppose that a religion which filled the whole world, should have been copied at least in some details by another religion which was quite popular during the third century. Moreover the resemblances pointed out are superficial and external. Similarity in words and names is nothing; it is the sense that matters. During these centuries Christianity was coining its own technical terms, and naturally took names, terms, and expressions current in that day; and so did Mithraism. But under identical terms each system thought its own thoughts. Mithra is called a mediator; and so is Christ; but Mithra originally only in a cosmogonic or astronomical sense; Christ, being God and man, is by nature the Mediator between God and man. And so in similar instances. Mithraism had a Eucharist, but the idea of a sacred banquet is as old as the human race and existed at all ages and amongst all peoples. Mithra saved the world by sacrificing a bull; Christ by sacrificing Himself. It is hardly possible to conceive a more radical difference than that between Mithra taurochtonos and Christ crucified. Christ was born of a Virgin; there is nothing to prove that the same was believed of Mithra born from the rock. Christ was born in a cave; and Mithraists worshipped in a cave, but Mithra was born under a tree near a river. Much as been made of the presence of adoring shepherds; but their existence on sculptures has not been proven, and considering that man had not yet appeared, it is an anachronism to suppose their presence. (3) Christ was an historical personage, recently born in a well known town of Judea, and crucified under a Roman governor, whose name figured in the ordinary official lists. Mithra was an abstraction, a personification not even of the sun but of the diffused daylight; his incarnation, if such it may be called, was supposed to have happened before the creation of the human race, before all history. The small Mithraic congregations were like masonic lodges for a few and for men only and even those mostly of one class, the military; a religion that excludes the half of the human race bears no comparison to the religion of Christ. Mithraism was all comprehensive and tolerant of every other cult, the Pater Patrum himself was an adept in a number of other religions; Christianity was essential exclusive, condemning every other religion in the world, alone and unique in its majesty.
Publication information Written by J.P. Arendzen. Transcribed by John Looby. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
CUMONT, "Notes sur un temple Mithraique d'Ostie" (Ghent, 1891); IDEM, "Textes et Monuments figures relat. Aux Mysteres de Mithra" (2 vols., Brussels, 1896-1899); IDEM, "Les Mysteres de Mithra" (2nd., Paris, 1902), tr. McCormack (London, 1903); IDEM, "Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain" (Paris, 1906); MARTINDALE, "The Religion of Mithra" in "The Month" (1908, Oct., Nov., Dec.); IDEM, "The Religion of Mithra" in "Lectures on the Hist. Of Religions", II (C.T.S., London, 1910); DILL, "Roman Society from Nero to M. Aurelius" (London, 1904); ST.-CLAIR-TISDALL, "Mythic Christs and the True"; DIETERICH, Eine Mithrasliturgie (Leipzig, 1903); RAMSAY, "The Greek of the early Church and the Pagan Ritual" (Edinburgh, 1898-9); BLOTZER, "Das hedn. Mysterienwesen und die Hellenisierung des Christenthums" in "Stimmen aus Maria-Laach" (1906-7); ALES, "Mithraicisme et Christianisme" in "Revue Pratique d'Apologétique" (Pris, 1906-7); WEILAND, "Anklange der christl. Tauflehre an die Mithraischen Mystagogie" (Munich, 1907); GASQUET, "Essai sur le culte et les mysteres de Mithra" (Paris, 1890.
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