An often well received part of our living history displays are the demonstration and explanation of religious practices. It is normal for the soldiers, having dedicated an altar to Jupiter, to offer a small prayer to Mithras, the soldiers god. But who is this mysterious eastern deity? The following paragraphs are aimed at explaining the mysteries of Mithras to those interested in understanding the popularity of this cult with Roman soldiers. Hopefully, it will enable readers to speak with some authority if questioned by the public and could be used to guide explanatory commentary.
A prayer offered to Mithras
Etymology. The Proto-Indo-Iranian word *mitra- (nominative *mitras) means "[that which] binds", deriving from the root mi- "to bind", with the "tool suffix" -tra- (cf. man-tra-). This particular meaning is preserved in the mithra "covenant" written in Avestan, the old Eastern Iranian liturgical language used to compose the sacred hymns and canon of the Zoroastrian sacred scripture of the Avesta. In Sanskrit, mitra literally means "friend", one of the aspects of binding and alliance. Following the prehistoric cultural split of Indian and Iranian cultures, names descended from *mitra were used for the various religious entities, as follows.
Indic Mitra (in Sanskrit
Mitrá-, Mitrá?). In the Vedic period (1500500 BCE)
Mitra was a prominent deity (asura) of the Rigveda,
a collection of hymns to various Indian deities, who had a distinguished
relationship with Varuna, chief of the gods. Vedic Mitra
was the patron divinity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings.
The first extant record of Indo-Aryan Mitra, in the form mi-it-ra-,
is in the inscribed peace treaty of c. 1400 BCE between Hittites and the
Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni in the area southeast of Lake Van
in Asia Minor. In the inscription Mitra appears together with four
other Indo-Aryan divinities as witnesses and keepers of the pact.
Iranian Mithra (in Avestan Mira-, Miro). In Zoroastrianism, Mithra was a yazata (see inset above) mentioned in the Zoroastrian sacred scripture of the Avesta and a member of the trinity of ahuras, protectors of asha/arta ("truth" or "[that which is] right"). Mithra's standard appellation was "of wide pastures" suggesting omnipresence: Mithra is "truth-speaking, ...with a thousand ears,...with ten thousand eyes, high, with full knowledge, strong, sleepless, and ever awake." (Mihr Yasht (Hymn to Mithra) 10.7). As preserver of covenants, Mithra was also protector and keeper of all aspects of interpersonal relationships, such as friendship and love. Related to his position as protector of truth, Mithra was a judge (ratu), ensuring that individuals who broke promises or were not righteous (artavan) were not admitted to paradise. As in the Indo-Iranian tradition, Mithra was associated with (the divinity of) the sun but originally distinct from it. Mithra was closely associated with the feminine yazata Aredvi Sura Anahita, the hypostasis of knowledge.
Graeco-Roman Mithras. The name Mithras is the Greek nominative form of Mithra, the yazata that, as previously mentioned, served as mediator between Ahura Mazda and the earth, the guarantor of human contracts. In Mithraism, however, much was added to the original elements of Mitra/Mithra, although the Mithraist emphasis on astrology strongly suggests a synthesis of beliefs with the earlier star-oriented Mesopotamian or Anatolian religions. At first identified with the Sun-god Helios by the Greeks, the syncretic Mithra-Helios was transformed into the figure Mithras during the 2nd century BCE, probably at Pergamon.
The Mysteries. It is
not possible to state with certainty when "the mysteries of Mithras"
developed. Moreover, the mythology surrounding the cult is not easily
reassembled from the surviving enigmatic and complicated iconography.
As Cumont and later scholars have
noted, there are almost no texts for Roman Mithras: Celsus
and Porphyry offered highly Platonised accounts
that offer poor evidence for authentic Mithraic cult and doctrine. Epigraphy
offers few details; instead, the mystery cult of Mithras left hundreds
of reliefs and friezes each revealing tantalising glimpses of the mythology.
Given the lack of textual evidence, we are left to interpret these reliefs
literally, although they may represent abstract ideas and often tell contradictory
stories. Indeed the dedicatory inscription on a 2nd-3rd century relief
discovered in a temple at Ostia in the 1790s refers to the "incomprehensible
deity" (INDEPREHENSIVILIS DEI). Apparently, the cult of Mithras
did not depend, as Christianity does, on the interpretation of revealed
texts considered to be divinely inspired. The surviving textual references
are therefore those of Christians, who mention Mithras to deplore him,
and neo-Platonists who interpreted Mithraic symbols within their own world-schemes.
However, we do have a number of dedications from followers of Mithras (mainly addressed to invictus (unconquerable) Mithras), mainly from Roman Britain, the Rhine and Danube area and Italy. The finds suggest a large number of his worshippers were possibly low-ranking soldiers (there are very few examples of offerings from higher-ranking soldiers and those may have just been to encourage their men) and slaves, perhaps because a religion with a strict but straight-forward hierarchy allowed them the power they lacked in their everyday lives. Later in the third century, Mithraism filtered through to the upper classes and it was even used as a mid-ground argument against Christianity. Moreover, while being practised up to the 5th century CE, it has been suggested that much of the myth and symbolism of Mithraism was influential on the early Christian Church.
Birth of a God. There are several competing stories regarding Mithras birth. Some say that he was born, or reborn, from a rock (the petra genetrix) or a tree typically with the snake Oroboros wrapped around it. A bronze image of Mithras emerging from an egg-shaped zodiac ring, the "Cosmic Egg", was found associated with a temple on Hadrian's Wall (now at the University of Newcastle), while other stories have him being born of a virgin. An inscription from Rome suggests that Mithras may have been seen as the Orphic creator-god Phanes who emerged from the world egg at the beginning of time, bringing the universe into existence. This view is reinforced by a bas-relief at the Estense Museum in Modena, Italy, which shows Phanes emerging from an egg, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle. All stories agree that Mithras was born on December 255 - a date celebrated as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Interestingly, some depictions of his birth show shepherds in attendance, while others show only two torchbearers, but regardless the stories all concur that it was Ahura Mazda who arranged for his creation.
Deeds. Following his birth Mithras became an ally of the Sun and Ahura Mazda, god of life and light, in the eternal war against Ahriman, the god of death and darkness. He entered a struggle with a bull, the first living creature, in which he overcame it and brought it to his cave. The bull managed to escape, but Mithras was visited by a raven, who, acting as a messenger from the Sun, told him that it was his duty to track down the bull and kill it. Mithras succeeded in this, and when the bull's blood was spilt, all of the creatures of nature were created. Among the beings emerging from the bull's blood were the first human couple and thus Mithras became an intermediary between Ahura Mazda and men, protecting them from the attempts of Ahriman to destroy them. Following the completion of these labours, Mithras ascended to heaven in the chariot of the sun.
Religious Worship. It is difficult to reconstruct the daily workings and beliefs of Mithraism, as the rituals were highly secret and limited to initiated men only. Mithras was little more than a name until the massive documentation of Franz Cumont's Texts and Illustrated Monuments Relating to the Mysteries of Mithra was published in 1894-1900 (the English translation followed in 1903).
Worship took place in a temple known to modern scholars as a "mithraeum" (Latin, from Greek mithraion). A mithraeum was either an adapted natural cave or cavern, or an artificial building constructed to imitate a cavern, to thus resemble Mithras' birthplace. As alluded to above, it is commonly believed that the cave in Mithraism imagery represents the cosmos, and the rock is the cosmos seen from the outside. Wherever possible, purpose-built mithraea were constructed within rooms inside or below an existing building, e.g. a private home or a bathhouse. Mithraea were thus intended to be dark and windowless. A mithraeum may be identified by its separate entrance or vestibule, its "cave", called the spelaeum or spelunca, with raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal, and its sanctuary at the far end, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Mithraea following this basic plan are scattered over much of the Empire's former area, particularly where the legions were stationed along the frontiers. Along Hadrian's Wall, for example, three mithraea have been identified at Housesteads, Carrawburgh and Rudchester. Finds from these sites are in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, where a mithraeum has been recreated. Excavations in London have uncovered the remains of a Mithraic temple near the centre of the once walled Roman settlement, on the bank of the Walbrook stream. Mithraea have also been found along the Danube and Rhine river frontier, in the province of Dacia (where in 2003 a temple was found in Alba-Iulia) and as far afield as Numidia in North Africa.
One of many mithraea discovered at Ostia Antica,
the ancient port serving Rome. A tauroctony emerges from the
As would be expected, Mithraic ruins are also found in the port city of Ostia, and in Rome the capital, where as many as seven hundred mithraea may have existed (a dozen have been identified). Its importance at Rome may be judged from the abundance of monumental remains: more than 75 pieces of sculpture, 100 Mithraic inscriptions, and the ruins of temples and shrines in all parts of the city and its suburbs. A well-preserved late 2nd century CE mithraeum, with its altar and built-in stone benches, originally built beneath a Roman house (as was a common practice), survives in the crypt over which has been built the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome.
In every mithraeum, the place of honour was occupied by a tauroctony, a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull. In the Graeco-Roman myth, Ahura Mazda had sent a crow to instruct Mithras to slay the bull and release from its dying body the plants, animals and all the beneficial things of the earth. In the depiction, Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap and pants, slays the bull from above while looking away. A serpent, symbolizing the earth, and a dog are routinely depicted drinking from the bull's open wound (which often spills blood but occasionally grain), while a scorpion (representing autumn) attacks the bull's testicles sapping the bulls strength. Typically, a raven or crow is also present, and sometimes a goblet and small lion. The torch-bearers Cautes and Cautopates, the celestial twins of light and darkness, stand on either side with their legs crossed, Cautes with his brand pointing up and Cautopates with his turned down. Above Mithras, the symbols for Sol and Luna are present in the starry night sky. It has been proposed that the tauroctony is a symbolic astrological representation of the constellations rather than an Iranian animal sacrifice scene with Iranian precedents. The bull is Taurus, the snake Hydra, the dog Canis Major or Minor, the crow or raven Corvus, the goblet Crater, the lion Leo, and the wheat-blood for the star Spica. The torch-bearers may represent the two equinoxes, although this is less clear. Mithras himself could also be associated with Perseus, whose constellation is above that of the bull.
Floor mosaic showing the emblems of the seven grades of initiation in the mithraeum of Felicissimus, Ostia..
Rites and Rituals. From the structure of the mithraea it is possible to surmise that worshippers would have gathered for a common meal along the reclining couches lining the walls. It is worth noting that most temples could hold only thirty or forty individuals. According to Cumonts work, members apparently ascended through seven grades of initiation, each aligned with a symbol, and a god (see inset). Archaeological evidence suggests that initiations involved three ordeals to be endured: heat, cold, and hunger. All members were expected to progress through the first four ranks, while only a few would proceed to the three higher ranks. The first four ranks represent spiritual progress - the new initiate became a Corax, while the Leo was an adept - the other three would have been specialised offices. Since Pater was the highest rank it is mentioned most frequently in inscriptions, but becoming a Lion appears to have been very important being regarded as a watershed in one's authority and responsibility within the cult. Through their association with Jupiter, Lions were aligned with fire and so it would have been inappropriate for them to be cleansed at their initiation with water. Honey was used instead; which was also placed on the initiates tongue to symbolise their pure and cleansing words.
Reliefs on a cup found in Mainz appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as led into a location where a Pater would be seated in the guise of Mithras with a drawn bow. Accompanying the initiate is a mystagogue, who explains the symbolism and theology to the initiate. The rite is thought to re-enact what has come to be called the 'Water Miracle' in which Mithras fires a bolt into a rock and from which spouted water.
Expansion throughout the Empire. By 67 BCE, according to Plutarch, a large band of pirates in Cilicia - on the Southeast coast of Anatolia - were practising "secret rites" of Mithras. Eventually, this new cult was taken to Rome around the 1st century BCE and was subsequently dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Gaining popularity among the Roman military, Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity around the 3rd and through the 4th centuries CE, spreading as far north as Hadrian's Wall and the Germanic Limes. Indeed, the German frontiers have yielded most of the archaeological evidence of the cults prosperity: small cult objects connected with Mithras turn up in archaeological digs from Romania to Hadrian's Wall.
Material evidence for the Mithraic worship in the 1st century
CE is provided by soldiers from the military garrison at Carnuntum
in the Roman province of Upper Pannonia (near the Danube River
in modern Austria, near the Hungarian border). Likewise, Mithraic dedications,
probably in the year 71 CE or 72 CE, were made by legionaries returning
home after the conflict against the Parthians and the suppression
of the revolts in Jerusalem from 60 CE to about 70 CE. When Mithraism
was introduced by the Roman legions at Dura-Europos after 168 CE,
the god had assumed his familiar Hellenistic iconic formula as represented
by the tauroctony. By the 3rd century CE, Mithraism was officially
sanctioned by the Emperors. For example, according to the 4th century
Historia Augusta, the
Emperor Commodus participated in its mysteries:
There is very little information about the decline
of Mithraism, which seemingly disappeared from overt practice after the
edict of Theodosius I in 391 CE banned all pagan rites. While official
recognition of Mithras in the army effectively stopped at this
time, there is little information on what other effects the edict had.
It is possible that Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons
of the Alps and Vosges into the fifth century CE. What is certain is that
another mystery cult arriving from the East was to overshadow
and ultimately replace worship of the Unconquered Sun.
"Ave Mithras, Sol Invicti!"
1. Cumont Franz, Textes et mounuments
figurés rélatifs aux mystères de Mithra vol. II (Brussels)