TThis is the religion of Mithras who came to the Roman
world as an ancient Indo-Perso-Iranian divinity, first as the god of heavenly
truth and light and the Lord of all countries. He was the greatest of
the Iranian gods, before the coming of Zoroaster in the sixth century
BCE. After this he was the sun or the genius of the sun, which was worshipped
as a deity by the Persians. In later Zoroastrian theology Mithras was
the son of Ahura-Mazda, the god of light and creator of the universe.
Mithras, too, was the god of light, of truth, purity, and honor; sometimes
he was identified with the sun as leading the cosmic war against the powers
of darkness, while always he mediated between his father Ormuzd (Ahura-Mazda)
and his followers, protecting them and encouraging them in life's struggle
with evil, lies, uncleanliness, and other works of Ahriman, prince of
When Pompey's soldiers brought this religion from Cappadocia to Europe,
a Greek artist pictured Mithras as kneeling on the back of a bull and
plunging a sacrificial knife into its neck. This representation became
the universal symbol of the faith.
Each seventh day was held sacred to the sun-god; and around the winter
solstice his followers celebrated the birthday of Mithras, Sol Invictus,
the Invincible Sun, who had won his annual victory over the forces of
darkness and would now, day by day, give longer light. (1). Tertullian
speaks of a Mithraic priesthood with a high pontiff, celibates, and
virgins serving the god. Daily sacrifice was offered at his altar, worshipers
partaking of consecrated bread and wine. The climax of the ceremony was
signaled by the sounding of a bell (3). A flame was kept ever burning
before the crypt in which the young god was shown felling the bull.
Mithras is commonly represented as a handsome youth, wearing the Phrygian
cap, tunic, and cloak, and kneeling on the bull, into whose throat he
is plunging a sacrificial knife. The bull is at the same time being attacked
by a dog, a serpent, and a scorpion. Also found in mithraea were two small
carved figures of men in Persian dress, each holding a torch. Cautes held
his torch upright, representing light; Cautopates held his reversed, representing
Mithraism preached a high morality, and pledged its soldiers to a lifelong
war against evil in every form. After death, said Mithraic priests, all
men must appear before the judgment seat of Mithras. Unclean souls would
be handed over to Ahriman for eternal torment, while the pure would rise
through seven spheres, shedding some mortal aspect at each stage, until
being received into the full radiance of heaven by Ahura-Mazda himself
This belief spread from India through Persia and the Hellenic world.
Mithraism was popular with Roman soldiers and through them reached Rome
in the second half of the 1st Century BCE. By the 3rd - 4th century CE,
soldiers of the Roman Empire had carried it as far west as Spain, Britain,
and Germany. Mithraism was a mystery faith in that its rites and doctrines
were revealed solely to its followers.
This vigorous religion built its chapels as far north as Hadrian's Wall.
Christian fathers were shocked to find so many parallels between their
own religion and Mithraism; they argued that these were thefts from Christianity,
or confusing stratagems of Satan (a form of Ahriman). It is difficult
to say which faith borrowed from the other; perhaps both absorbed ideas
current in the religious air of the East (4).
There is some controversy as to whether the belief system was a religion
or in fact more of a brotherhood. A professor of antiquities at Yale has
written a treatise on this subject and he has promised Nova Roma a copy,
with permission to publish it here. When and if it arrives, a follow-up
article on that view of Mithras and his following will be developed and
Mithraism was an exclusive belief which applied to men only, and seemed
to be favored by both soldiers and merchant traders.
The details of the mythology of this belief system were
complex, even convoluted. However it is clear that Ahura-Mazda was assisted
and supported in His constant struggle against the evil Ahriman, who seems
to be equivalent to the modern Christian view of Satan. This struggle
appears to be an eternal one pitting the light and goodness against all
that was darkness and evil. This was the central theme of Zoroastrian
Mithras was given the task by Ahura-Mazda to go to Earth and hunt for
the divine bull. He was to kill this creature and spill its blood, from
which all living things would arise.
Thus the most important Mithraic ceremony was the sacrifice of a bull,
an event which was associated with the creation of the world. Mithraic
ceremonies were held by torchlight in caverns, or in temples converted
to resemble such an environment, because Mithras was said to have slain
the divine bull in a cave. Tauroctony, finding and slaying the divine
bull, was the central theme of Mithraism and formed a significant part
of the stone relief carvings found in Mithraic places of worship. In some
mithraea, altars to Sol Invictus are also found.
This religion also featured a kind of baptism called the "taurobolium"
(throwing of the bull). Initiates stood naked in a ditch below a live
bull; when the bull was killed, its blood drenched them, purifying them
and giving them a new spiritual and eternal life (5). Some historians
contest this version of the ritual, believing instead that the baptism
conducted with a more restrained but nevertheless serious and meaningful
ceremony involving in some way the blood of a bull.
The Brotherhood was divided into seven ascending grades each having its
own initiation, baptism, and ritual meal.
There was a form of Mithraism in which the old Persian ceremonies were
given a Platonic interpretation. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE,
Mithras was honored as the patron of loyalty to the Emperor. After Constantine
I accepted Christianity in the early 4th century, Mithraism was suppressed
and rapidly declined. Nonetheless, in Germany among other sites, many
evidences of its former sway can still be found; for example, the monuments
As the monuments of this worship were destroyed during the Islamic conquests,
knowledge of its doctrines and rites is necessarily vague and uncertain,
but it bears some remarkable similarities to Christianity.
There is a reconstructed model of a mithraeum at Yale, and every year
in April a study group called the "Mithracon" is conducted over
The participants are treated to a tour of the museum, spend time in the
library doing research, gather at local eateries for meals, and take part
in discussions throughout the event on the various aspects of Mithraism.
- Dill, Sir S., "Roman Society From Nero to Marcus
Aurelus," London, 1911, page 610.
- Ibid., pages 601, 623.
- Cumont F., "Oriental Religions In Roman Paganism,"
Chicago, 1911, Page 158.
- Durant, W., "The Story of Civilization: Part
III - Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization from Its Beginnings
to A.D. 325,"
Simon and Shuster, New York, 1944, page 524.
- Guignebert C., "Christianity, Past and Present,"
Jesus, NY, 1935, page 71.
- L. & R. Adkins, "Handbook of Life in Ancient
Rome;" New York - Oxford, 1994; page 290.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Encyclopedia Americana