The Mithraic Mysteries or Mysteries of Mithras (also Mithraism) was a mystery religion which became popular among the military in the Roman Empire, from the 1st to 4th centuries CE. It is best attested in the cities of Rome and Ostia and in the Roman provinces of Mauretania, Britain, and in the provinces along the Rhine and Danube frontier.

Double-faced Mithraic relief. Rome, second to third century CE. Louvre Museum.
Top: Mithras killing the bull, being looked over by the Sun god and the Moon goddess.
Bottom: Mithras banqueting with the Sun god.

Rituals and worship

Mithraism was an initiatory order, passed from initiate to initiate, like the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was not based on a body of scripture, and hence very little written documentary evidence survives. Soldiers and the lower nobility appeared to be the most plentiful followers of Mithraism. Until recently, women were generally thought not to have been allowed to join, but it has now been suggested that "women were involved with Mithraic groups in at least some locations of the empire."[1] Recently revealed discrepancies such as these suggest that Mithraic beliefs were (contra the older supposition) not internally consistent and monolithic,cf. [2] but rather, varied from location to location.

No Mithraic scripture or first-hand account of its highly secret rituals survives, with the possible exception of a liturgy recorded in a 4th century papyrus, thought to be an atypical representation of the cult at best.[3] Current knowledge of the mysteries is almost entirely limited to what can be deduced from the iconography in the mithraea that have survived.

The mithraeum

A mithraeum found in the ruins of Ostia Antica, Italy.

Religious practice was centered on the mithraeum (Latin, from Greek mithraion), either an adapted natural cave or cavern or an artificial building imitating a cavern. Mithraea were dark and windowless, even if they were not actually in a subterranean space or in a natural cave. When possible, the mithraeum was constructed within or below an existing building. The site of a mithraeum may also 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. Many mithraea that follow this basic plan are scattered over much of the Empire's former area, particularly where the legions were stationed along the frontiers (such as Britain). Others may be recognized by their characteristic layout, even though converted as crypts beneath Christian churches.

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. Most temples could hold only thirty or forty individuals.

The mithraeum itself was arranged as an "image of the universe". It is noticed by some researchers that this movement, especially in the context of mithraic iconography (see below), seems to stem from the neoplatonic concept that the "running" of the sun from solstice to solstice is a parallel for the movement of the soul through the universe, from pre-existence, into the body, and then beyond the physical body into an afterlife.

Mithraic ranks

The members of a mithraeum were divided into seven ranks. All members were expected to progress through the first four ranks, while only a few would go on 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 have been specialized offices. The seven ranks were:

  • Corax (raven)
  • Nymphus (bridegroom)
  • Miles (soldier)
  • Leo (lion)
  • Perses (Persian)
  • Heliodromus (sun-courier)
  • Pater (father)

The titles of the first four ranks suggest the possibility that advancement through the ranks was based on introspection and spiritual growth.

The tauroctony

In every Mithraic temple, the place of honor was occupied by a tauroctony, a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull which was associated with spring. Mithras is depicted as an energetic young man, wearing a Phrygian cap, a short tunic that flares at the hem, pants and a cloak which furls out behind him. Mithras grasps the bull so as to force it into submission, with his knee on its back and one hand forcing back its head while he stabs it in the neck with a short sword. The figure of Mithras is usually shown at a diagonal angle and with the face turned forward. The representations occur as both reliefs, and as three-dimensional sculpture; however the three dimensional images have a strongly frontal aspect.

A serpent and a dog seem to drink from the bull's open wound which is sometimes depicted as spilling grain rather than blood, and a scorpion (usually interpreted as a sign for autumn) attacks the bull's testicles, sapping the bull's strength. Sometimes, a raven or crow is also present, and sometimes also a goblet and small lion. Cautes and Cautopates, the celestial twins of light and darkness, are torch-bearers, standing 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.

The Platonic writer Porphyry, recorded, in the 3rd century CE that the cave-like temple Mithraims depicted "an image of the cosmos" or "great cave" of the sky. This interpretation was supported by research by K. B. Stark in 1869, with astronomical support by Roger Beck (1984 and 1988) and David Ulansey (1989).

Tauroctony of Mithras at the British Museum London

It has been proposed by David Ulansey that, rather than being derived from Iranian animal sacrifice scene with Iranian precedents, the tauroctony is a symbolic representation of the constellations.[4] The bull is thus interpreted as representing the constellation Taurus, the snake the constellation 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 name of which means "spike of wheat". Ulansey suggests that the two torch-bearers represent the two equinoxes, and that their crossed legs represent the two intersection points of the zodiac and the celestial equator that define the equinoxes. Ulansey argues that the tauroctony is an astronomical code symbolizing the precession of the equinoxes: the movement of the cosmic sphere, discovered by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, which caused the spring equinox to move out of the constellation of Taurus (thus ending the "Age of the Bull").

Detail of sculpture (left) showing scorpion attacking the bull's testicles

Mithras is associated by Michael Speidel with the constellation of Orion[5] because of the proximity to Taurus, and the consistent nature of the depiction of the figure as having wide shoulders, a garment flared at the hem, and narrowed at the waist with a belt, thus taking on the form of the constellation. Ulansey, on the other hand, argues that Mithras was equated with Perseus, whose constellation is directly above that of the Taurus in the sky-- the same position occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony.

Cumont hypothesized (since then discredited) that this imagery was a Greco-Roman representation of an event in Zoroastrian cosmogony, in which Angra Mainyu (not Mithra) slays the primordial creature Gayomaretan (which in Zoroastrian tradition is represented as a bull).

Mithras is associated by Michael Speidel with the constellation of Orion[5] because of the proximity to Taurus, and the consistent nature of the depiction of the figure as having wide shoulders, a garment flared at the hem, and narrowed at the waist with a belt, thus taking on the form of the constellation. Ulansey, on the other hand, argues that Mithras was equated with Perseus, whose constellation is directly above that of the Taurus in the sky-- the same position occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony.

Cumont hypothesized (since then discredited) that this imagery was a Greco-Roman representation of an event in Zoroastrian cosmogony, in which Angra Mainyu (not Mithra) slays the primordial creature Gayomaretan (which in Zoroastrian tradition is represented as a bull).

Other iconography

Depictions show Mithras (or who is thought to represent Mithras) wearing a cape, that in some examples, has the starry sky as its inside lining. (See image below)

A bronze image of Mithras emerging from an egg-shaped zodiac ring was found associated with a mithraeum along Hadrian's Wall (now at the University of Newcastle). An inscription from the city of 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 coming from an egg, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle.

Reliefs on a cup found in Mainz[6] [7], appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as led into a location where a Pater (see Mithraic ranks) 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 the rock now spouts water.

History and development

In antiquity, texts refer to "the mysteries of Mithras", and to its adherents, as "the mysteries of the Persians."[8] This latter epithet is significant, not only for whether the Mithraists considered the object of their devotion a Persian divinity (i.e. Mithra), but for whether the devotees considered their religion to have been founded by Zoroaster.[8]

It is not possible to state with certainty when "the mysteries of Mithras" developed. Clauss asserts[9] "the mysteries" were not practiced until the 1st century CE. Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity around the 3rd through 4th centuries, when it was particularly popular among the soldiers of the Roman Empire. Mithraism disappeared from overt practice after the Theodosian decree of 391 banned all pagan rites, and it apparently became extinct thereafter.

Although scholars are in agreement with the classical sources that state that the Romans borrowed the name of Mithras from Avestan Mithra,[10] the origins of the Roman religion itself remain unclear and there is yet no scholarly consensus concerning this issue (for a summary of the various theories, see history, below). Further compounding the problem is the non-academic understanding of what "Persian" means, which, in a classical context is not a specific reference to the Iranian province Pars, but to the Persian (i.e. Achaemenid) Empire and speakers of Iranian languages in general.

Cumont's hypothesis

'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, with the first English translation in 1903. Cumont's hypothesis, as the author summarizes it in the first 32 pages of his book, was that the Roman religion was a development of a Zoroastrian cult of Mithra (which Cumont supposes is a development from an Indo-Iranian one of *mitra), that through state sponsorship and syncretic influences was disseminated throughout the Near- and Middle East, ultimately being absorbed by the Greeks, and through them eventually by the Romans.

Cumont's theory was a hit in its day, particularly since it was addressed to a general, non-academic readership that was at the time fascinated by the orient and its hitherto (relatively) uncharted culture. This was the age when great steps were being taken in Egyptology and Indology, preceded as it was by Max Müller's "Sacred Books of the East" series that for the first time demonstrated that civilization did not begin and end with Rome and Greece, or even with Assyria and Babylon, which until then were widely considered to be the cradle of humanity. Cumont's book was a product of its time, and influenced generations of academics such that the effect of Cumont's syncretism theories are felt even a century later.

Cumont's ideas, though in many respects valid, had however one serious problem with respect to the author's theory on the origins of Mithraism: If the Roman religion was an outgrowth of an Iranian one, there would have to be evidence of Mithraic-like practices attested in Greater Iran. However, that is not the case: No mithraea have been found there, and the Mithraic myth of the tauroctony does not conclusively match the Zoroastrian legend of the slaying of Gayomart, in which Mithra does not play any role at all. The historians of antiquity, otherwise expansive in their descriptions of Iranian religious practices, hardly mention Mithra at all (one notable exception is Herodotus i.131, which associates Mithra with other divinities of the morning star).

Further, no distinct religion of Mithra or *mitra had ever (and has not since) been established. As Boyce put it, "no satisfactory evidence has yet been adduced to show that, before Zoroaster, the concept of a supreme god existed among the Iranians, or that among them Mithra - or any other divinity - ever enjoyed a separate cult of his or her own outside either their ancient or their Zoroastrian pantheons."[11]

It should however be noted that while it is "generally agreed that Cumont's master narrative of east-west transfer is unsustainable," a syncretic Zoroastrian (whatever that might have entailed at the time) influence is a viable supposition.[12] This does not however imply that the religion practiced by the Romans was the same as that practiced elsewhere; syncretism was a feature of Roman religion, and the syncretic religion known as the Mysteries of Mithras is a product of Roman culture itself. "Apart from the name of the god himself, in other words, Mithraism seems to have developed largely in and is, therefore, best understood from the context of Roman culture."[13]

Other theories

Other theories propose that Mithraism originated in Asia Minor, which though once within the sphere of Zoroastrian influence, by the second century BCE were more influenced by Hellenism than by Zoroastrianism. It was there, at Pergamum on the Aegean Sea, in the second century BCE, that Greek sculptors started to produce the highly standardized bas-relief imagery of Mithra Tauroctonos "Mithra the bull-slayer."

The Greek biographer Plutarch (46 - 127) was convinced that the pirates of Cilicia, the coastal province in the southeast of Anatolia, were the origin of the Mithraic rituals that were being practiced in the Rome of his day: "They likewise offered strange sacrifices; those of Olympus I mean; and they celebrated certain secret mysteries, among which those of Mithras continue to this day, being originally instituted by them." (Life of Pompey 24)

Beck suggests a connection through the Hellenistic kingdoms (as Cumont had already intimated) was quite possible: "Mithras — moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god, Helios, which was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I, king of the small, but prosperous "buffer" state of Commagene, in the mid first century BCE."[8]

Ulansey argues that the Mithraic mysteries began in the Greco-Roman world as a religious response to the discovery by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes-- a discovery that amounted to discovering that the entire cosmos was moving in a hitherto unknown way. This new cosmic motion, he suggests, was seen by the founders of Mithraism as indicating the existence of a powerful new god capable of shifting the cosmic spheres and thereby controlling the universe.

Another possible connection between a Mithra and Mithras, though one not proposed by Cumont, is from a Manichean context. According to Sundermann, the Manicheans adopted the name Mithra to designate one of their own deities. Sundermann determined that the Zoroastrian Mithra, which in Middle Persian is Mihr, is not a variant of the Parthian and Sogdian Mytr or Mytrg; though a homonym of Mithra, those names denote Maitreya. In Parthian and Sogdian however Mihr was taken as the sun and consequently identified as the Third Messenger. This Third Messenger was the helper and redeemer of mankind, and identified with another Zoroastrian divinity Narisaf.[14] Citing Boyce,[15] Sundermann remarks, "It was among the Parthian Manicheans that Mithra as a sun god surpassed the importance of Narisaf as the common Iranian image of the Third Messenger; among the Parthians the dominance of Mithra was such that his identification with the Third Messenger led to cultic emphasis on the Mithraic traits in the Manichaean god."[16]

Some commentators[17] surmise that the Mithraists worshipped Mithras as the mediator between Man and the supreme God of the upper and nether world. Other commentators,[who?] inspired by James Frazer's theories, have additionally labeled Mithraism as a mystery religion with a life-death-rebirth deity, comparable to Isis, or Persephone/Demeter, the cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The early period

Mithraism began to attract attention in Rome around the end of the first century. Statius mentions the typical Mithraic relief in his Thebaid (Book i. 719,720), around 80 CE. The earliest material evidence for the Roman worship of Mithras dates from that period, in a record of Roman soldiers who came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the Roman province of Upper Pannonia (near the Danube River in modern Austria, near the Hungarian border). Other legionaries fought the Parthians and were involved in the suppression of the revolts in Jerusalem from 60 CE to about 70 CE When they returned home, they made Mithraic dedications, probably in the year 71 or 72.

By the year 200, Mithraism had spread widely through the army, and also among traders and slaves. During festivals all initiates were equals including slaves. The German frontiers have yielded most of the archaeological evidence of its prosperity: small cult objects connected with Mithras turn up in archaeological digs from Romania to Hadrian's Wall.

Expansion throughout the empire

Sol Invictus on the reverse of this coin by usurper Victorinus. Mithras (as well as Elagabalus and Sol) was at times referred to as Sol Invictus.

By the third century, Mithraism was officially sanctioned by the Roman emperors.[18] According to the fourth century Historia Augusta, Commodus participated in its mysteries: Sacra Mithriaca homicidio vero polluit, cum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat "He desecrated the rites of Mithras with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror".[19]

Concentrations of Mithraic temples are found on the outskirts of the Roman empire: along Hadrian's wall in northern England three mithraea have been identified, at Housesteads, Carrawburgh and Rudchester. The discoveries are in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, where a mithraeum has been recreated. Recent excavations in London have uncovered the remains of a Mithraic temple near to the center of the once walled Roman settlement, on the bank of the Walbrook stream. Mithraea have also been found in Poetovio (today Ptuj) in Pannonia, 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.

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 ruins of temples and shrines in all parts of the city and its suburbs. A well-preserved late second-century 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.

Decline and demise

There is very little information about the decline of the religion. The edict of Theodosius I in 394 made paganism illegal. Official recognition of Mithras in the army stopped at this time, but we have no information on what other effect the edict had. Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges into the fifth century.[20]

Places of Interest

Places of Interest

Sites of interest relating to the Mystery of Mithras include:

  • Austria: Carnuntum had at least five mithrea, one of which has been reconstructed and is on display in the archeological park at the excavation site. Cult sites have also been found in other parts of Austria.
  • Italy: The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome has a preserved mithraeum with the altarpiece still intact in the excavations under the modern church.
  • Italy: The Castra Peregrinorum mithraeum in Rome, under the basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo was excavated in the 20th century.
  • Italy: Ostia Antica, the port of Rome, where the remains of 17 mithraea have been found so far; one of them is substantial.
  • Slovenia: The museum of Ptuj and town Hajdina near Ptuj with five excavated mithraea.
  • Germany: The museum of Dieburg displays finds from a mithraeum, including ceramics used in the service.
  • Germany: The museum of Hanau displays a reconstruction of a mithraeum.
  • Hungary: Fertorakos mithraeum. Reconstructed using substantial original remains at Fertőrákos in Hungary.
  • England: The museum at the University of Newcastle displays findings from the three sites along Hadrian's Wall (including the Carrawburgh mithraeum and Rudchester mithraeum) and recreates the now exposed mithraeum at Carrawburgh
  • England: The London Mithraeum was discovered in 1954 in Walbrook, London. It was moved and is now on Queen Victoria Street, with findings in the Museum of London.
  • Switzerland: The city of Martigny (ancient Octodurus), in the Alps, displays a reconstructed Mithraeum [1]
  • United States: The Cincinnati Art Museum displays a relief from a mithraeum in Rome itself depicting Mithras slaying a bull.

Last updated by Morgan Matthew Dec 26, 2008.

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