Posted in Ancient Rome, History, Mithraism, religion, writing

Mithras, Lord of Light

Another tangential interest that has sprung up from that movie is an interest in the ancient religion of Mithraism. This cult was very popular with the Roman soldiers and the poor for roughly four hundred hundred years. This is meant as the barest introduction to Mithraism as I’m just beginning to learn about it. The pre-eminent work on the religion is by Franz Cumont, a Belgian scholar who wrote a two-volume work on it in 1896 (English translation 1903). It’s still considered the definitive work on it as far as I have been able to find out.

Unfortunately, the actual beliefs and practices are mostly lost to time. Their rites and theology were never written down. It was a very secretive cult so it’s hard to know what they believed or what the actual rites consisted of. The central figure was of course Mithras, called “Lord of Light”. In general, it seems to have been a males-only religion, although there is some speculative evidence that women did follow it as well.

In a nutshell, Mithras, or Mithra, is thought to have originally been a Persian god, with roots in Zoroastrianism. Mithras is the Latin rendition of the name, from the Greek “Μίθρας”. Erm, ok.

Anyway, it seems there is some disagreement in the scholarly community as to whether the Mithras worshipped by the Romans was in fact the same god worshipped in Persia. David Ulansey points out:

Thus, if the god Mithras of the Roman religion was actually the Iranian god Mithra, we should expect to find in Iranian mythology a story in which Mithra kills a bull. However, the fact is that no such Iranian myth exists: in no known Iranian text does Mithra have anything to do with killing a bull.

We’ll leave that discussion to those who know more. For my part, I’m good either way.

So what was Mithraism? It was a mystery religion, with seven grades of initiation. No written records of what actually took place or what the rites were has survived, if indeed anyone ever wrote them down. Most of what is generally believed about it comes from extant temples, from the mosaics inlaid, stutuary, wall paintings, and various debris found in the ruins of temples. Rites were conducted in a subterranean temple, called a mithraeum.

Mithraeum in Ostia

You can see a number of these located in Ostia (outside Rome) here.

Each mithraeum had a central altar which featured a statue of the tauroctony, or a depiction of Mithras killing a bull. The bull is thought to be Taurus, which appears to represent Mithras slaying Taurus, thereby bringing about the end of winter and the beginning of spring, rebirth symbolism.

This one near Vienna contains a font for holy water:

This mithræum, like all others of the same style, is underground. Before the great bas-relief of Mithra slaying the bull are two altars, the one large and square in form, the other smaller and richly ornamented. The small statute on the left is Mithra being born from the rock. At the right of the entrance we see the lion of Mithra and at the left is a font for holy water. The two torch-bearers stand on the pillars which separate the aisles. The mithræum is approached by a stairway and through a square hall (or pronaos) which is considerably larger than the sanctum itself (T. et M., p. 493).

The seven grades of initiation were: Raven (corax), Occult (cryphius), Soldier Lion (leo), Persian (Perses), Runner of the Sun (heliodromus), and Father (pater). Initiates partook of a ritual meal involving drinking wine and eating bread (symbolic of the body and blood of Mithras).

The greatest number of followers seems to have been in Rome, but mithraea have been found all over Europe: Germany, Britain, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Numidia (modern day Algieria). Suffice to say, wherever Roman soldiers went, no doubt Mithras went as well.

Some of the more interesting things about this cult are the parallels to another cult that arose later and seems to have co-opted several aspects. For instance:

Some believe the birth of Mithras was celebrated on December 25, although others dispute this as Sol Invictus being a separate and distinct holiday. But people like to draw the parallel.

The highest grade was known as “Father.”

In some legends about Mithras, he is said to have been born of a virgin. Other myths tell of him being born from a rock. This image shows him rising out of the rock under an arch showing the signs of the zodiac.

Followers shared bread and wine, in a ritual act of consuming  the body and blood of Mithras. An inscription found on a tablet reads, He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.

Any of this sounding familiar? Kind of hints at a pagan basis for some Christian beliefs and practices.

Each mithraeum was autonomous with no central authority, so it definitely diverges in that respect from Christianity. There was a lot of co-opting going on in them thar days, to make the new religion more palatable to adherents of the old ways. Some of the more paranoid types even suggest the Statue of Liberty is a Mithraic representation. I think that’s stretching it, but what do I know? I lost my tinfoil hat.