Mithraism and Christianity (§ 1).
Mithra as an Indo-Iranian Deity (§ 2).
Development and Diffusion of Mithraism (§ 3).
Mythology and Theology (§ 4).
Anthropology, Eschatology (§ 5).
The Mysteries (§ 6).
Art and Architecture (§ 7).
The Decay (§ 8).
Interest in Mithraism is not attributable merely to the fact that it is a rediscovery of comparatively recent date. Two other reasons give the subject importance: (1) This religion contested with Christianity for the religious hegemony of the Roman world more closely than any other of the pagan cults in the syncretism which marked the religious practise of the later Roman empire. Renan says of it, and without exaggeration: “We may say that if Christianity had been arrested in its growth by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraistic . . . . It needed to destroy it the terrible blows struck at it by the Christian empire” (Marcus Aurelius, p. 332, London, n.d.). (2) The causes for this able rivalry furnish the second reason. The diffusion of Mithraism and of Christianity in the Roman world was from the same direction, at about the same time, and its propaganda, popular rather than philosophic, was carried to the same class of people. In theory, ritual, and practise Mithraism parodied or duplicated, after a fashion, the central ideas of Christianity. The birth of Mithra and of Christ were celebrated on the same day; tradition placed the birth of both in a cave; both regarded Sunday as sacred; in both the central figure was a mediator (mesites) who was one of a triad or trinity; in both there was a sacrifice for the benefit of the race, and the purifying power of blood from the sacrifice was, though in different ways, a prime motive; regeneration or the second birth was a fundamental tenet in both; the conception of the relationship of the worshipers to each other was the same—they were all brothers; both had sacraments, in which baptism and a communion meal of bread and the cup were included; both had mysteries from which the lower orders of initiates were excluded; ascetic ideals were common to both; the ideas of man, the soul and its immortality, heaven and hell, the resurrection from the dead, judgment after death, the final conflagration by which the world is to be consumed, the final conquest of evil, were quite similar. Of course the rationale behind these conceptions and the ways in which they were carried out were very different, but the general effect is almost startling. The Church Fathers were themselves astounded at the resemblances, and could explain them only by the theory which has so often been applied in the history of the contact of Christianity in its missions to the pagan world—the observances of Mithraism were the cunning parodies devised by Satan to discredit the holy things of God and to seduce the souls of men from the true faith by a false and insidious imitation of it (Tertullian, De corona, xv.; De præscriptione, xl.; Justin Martyr, I Apol. lxvi.; Trypho, lxxviii.). There were, however, two very important differences between the two faiths: Christianity had as its nucleating point a historic personage; Mithra came out of a distant past with all its accretion of myth and fancy. In the second place, Mithraism, like Buddhism and Brahmanism, was syncretistic, was tolerant of the practises of other cults. Where it could not supplant, it assimilated or adopted. As Renan says, once more (ut sup.): “Mithra lent himself to all the confusions, with Attis, with Adonis, with Salazius, with Men, who had already been in possession for a long time back, to make the tears of women flow.” Christianity, on the other hand, was intolerant; its teachers were confident that they alone had the whole and only truth, that all else was error with which there could be no compromise. It would brook no rival; Mithraism, like all else pagan, was ruthlessly and completely crushed when the empire became Christian.
Mithra was originally an Indo-Iranian deity. In the Vedas he appears as one of the Adityas, a light-deity commonly invoked with Varuna, but later giving way to Savitar. He was a guardian of truth, fidelity, and justice. In Zoroastrianism Mithra was very important. He was one of the Yazatas or lofty genii of the religion, second in age and honor only to Ahura Mazda the Supreme, and is often put on an equality with him. How prominent his part was in Mazdaism may be seen from the fact that in the Avesta the second and longest of the Yasts, the Mihir Yast, is in his praise, and to him the Mihir Nyayis is dedicated (SBE, xxiii. 119-158, 353-355). Here, too, he is a light-god, while his attributes appear in the Avesta as follows (a single passage only for each attribute is cited). He is lord of the country side (Fargard, i. 1) and of wide pastures (Sirozah, i. 7), having 100 ears and 10,000 eyes (Sirozah, i. 16); his club strikes the demons (Khorshad Yast, 5); he makes the world grow (Farvardin Yast, 18); has piercing rays (Afrin Paighambar Zartust, 6), possesses full knowledge, is strong, sleepless, was made by Ahura the most glorious of all gods, “Mithra and Ahura,
the two great gods” (Khorshed Nyayis
, 6-7). In his own (Mihir) Yast Mithra appears as god of the heavenly light, who sees all and therefore knows the truth, of which he is therefore a witness and the preserver of oaths and of good faith, chastising liars and those who break promises, destroying their homes and smiting them in battle, but protecting those who keep faith. Ahura Mazda created Mithra as worthy of sacrifice and prayer as himself (§ 1); to him the chiefs sacrifice as they go to battle (§ 8); he precedes the sun over the hills (§ 13); is the invincible director of the fortunes of battle (§§ 35-43). He is the warrior and chief helper of Ahura in his contest with Ahriman, the giver to men of gifts both material and spiritual. Yet it is curious to note that in spite of the exalted position thus conceded in the documents of the religion as thus cited and in the worship accorded him by the princes and nobles of Persia (see below), there appears an effort to reduce him in rank in that he was not given a place with the six Amshaspands who are closely associated with Ahura as the seven great spirits, but is relegated to the position of Yazata or genius. Significant for the future is his association with Sraosha (“Obedience”) and Rashnu (“Justice”) in the protection of the soul from demons, from which develops the doctrine of redemption in the later mysteries. It may be noted in passing that the rites of these mysteries find their beginning in the Zoroastrian literature; baptism goes back to the purificatory aspersion of the Avesta; while the trials of the mysteries are implicit in the flagellations; and both of these were preliminary to the sacrifice (Mihir Yast
, § 122). While the theoretical and documentary position of Mithra, in Persia was as here described, he was if anything more prominent in the cult. He was a favorite with the Persian monarchs, consequently also with the nobility, and was regarded as the especial protector of this order. This continued after the spread of the cult into the West, the royal favor being shown later by the frequency with which his mule enters as an element into royal names in Asia Minor, while Roman emperors see reason to regard him as their protector. The Achæmenidæ worshiped him as making the great triad with Ahura and Anahita. His great festival on the sixteenth day of the seventh month (possibly the entire seventh month was sacred to him) was of especial moment in the royal calendar. Sacrifices were offered in his worship, consisting of cattle, great and small, and birds, and the preliminary to sacrifice consisted of ablutions and flagellations. As a consequence of the royal favor, the worship of Mithra spread throughout the empire. Moreover, Mithra was notably a deity with masculine characteristics; he appealed to the soldierly and the virile. It is hardly a wonder then that in its diffusion the Mithraic cult took on the character of an independent religion, and was promulgated no more as an element of Zoroastrianism, the intolerance of which unfitted it for a propaganda in contest with other religions as haughty as itself.
3. Development and Diffusion of Mithraism.
The first step in the development of Mithraism as an independent religion was the carrying of the cult to Babylon, the winter capital of the empire. It there encountered the philosophical theologizing of the Babylonian priests, who identified Mithra with Shamash (see BABYLONIA, VII., 2, § 4), and welded to Mithra’s story the mythology in which Babylonia was so rich. In addition to this there was ingrafted the mythology of the zodiac and shreds of Babylonian astrolatry, and this all came to have a large part in the symbolism of Mithraism. Into Armenia the faith was carried, and thence into Asia Minor, where, after the division of the empire of Alexander, Mithra became the favorite deity. It was probably at this period, 250-100 B.C., that the Mithraic system of ritual and doctrine took the form which it afterward retained. Here it came into contact with the mysteries, of which there were many varieties, among which the most notable were those of Cybele. Cumont attributes the development of the mysteries to the habit in Persia of transmitting from father to son the essentials and secrets of ritual. But if this be the origin, there is left unaccounted for the markedly sodalistic or fraternity character of the Mithraic communities. The worshipers in each mithræum were a small body, limited in membership, and the ensemble was much like that of a modern lodge. When it is remembered that the period 300 B.C.-100 A.D. was the one marked by a renascence of that curious feature of savage life, the mysteries, and that Asia Minor was the source from which the movement in the Roman and Greek world emanated, it seems more probable that the new cult took this form under the influences then and there so active, and that in this way the then fluent mass of Mithraic belief and practise took permanent form. The spirit of identification which had helped so in Babylon was employed in the new home. Mithra and Helios were identified, while Anahita, the Persian companion of Mithra, to whom the bull was sacred, was regarded as Artemis Tauropolos. These facile accommodations conciliated the populace, the element of secrecy and the grades or orders of the initiates added to the charm, while the belief that in the mysteries access was granted to the fabled wisdom of the East was one more element in favor of the religion. But the great triumphs of Mithraism were not won east of the religion, even Greece was wholly inhospitable; it was in the Roman world where success was to be gained. The story of the transition thither is almost that of romance. Among the people of Asia Minor the Cilicians were possibly the most devoted Mithraists. In their ambition they presumed to dispute with the Romans the control of the seas, and this brought upon them the force of Roman arms and the consequent conquest by the Romans of the “Cilician pirates” Among the immediate results of this was the initiation of Roman soldiers into the mysteriesit must not be forgotten that the cult of Mithra appealed especially to the soldier, and one of the ranks in the mysteries was that of miles or “soldier.” To this was due the introduction of the mysteries into the army, and the army was the principal of three methods by which Mithraism passed into the Roman world. The successive wars of the Romans in the East brought the
Roman soldiers into ever renewed touch with this cult, and the first Christian century was the period of the energetic propaganda, though as early as 70 B.C.
Mithraism was known to the Roman world. It must not be forgotten also, in accounting for the spread of the religion, that orientals formed very largely the personnel of the Roman army; and as these forces were drafted to distant posts in Africa and Europe, even as far west as Scotland, the ardent faith of the initiates in the ranks and among the officers made each post the center of a new propaganda. The Roman roads and waterways were dotted with Mithraic sanctuaries, a fact attested by inscriptions and votive offerings Soli invido Mithræ,
“to the sun, invincible Mithra,” bearing the names of officers and soldiers. These are, as a rule, where they would be expected—on the outskirts of the empire, along the frontier. But the existence of mithræums in the great cities and centers of trade, Alexandria, Syracuse, Carthage, and Rome, point to a different agency for the propaganda; to these places the Syrian merchants brought their wares and their religion. Also in the rural districts the cult of Mithra flourished, and this points to a third agency. Rome in its wars captured slaves by the thousands, who were distributed to the hamlets and the mines. So thus post and city and village and mountain valley hymned their praises to Mithra. Moreover, the votaries entered the civil service of Rome, and in their transfers carried their faith with them and as devoted missionaries established new centers. In the first Christian century there were at Rome associations of the followers of Mithra, probably organized as burial associations, in accordance with a common device of that period employed to acquire a legal status. The growth and importance of the cult in the second century are marked by the literary notices; Celsus opposed it to Christianity, Lucian made it the object of his wit. Nero desired to be initiated; Commodus (180-192) was received into the brotherhood; in the third century the emperors had a Mithraic chaplain; Aurelian (270-275) made the cult official; Diocletian, with Galerius and Licinius, in 307 dedicated a temple to Mithra; and Julian was a devotee. Indeed, the un-Roman cult of the worship of the emperors is a direct reflection of the oriental cults in which the sun was the attendant and patron of the ruler.
4. Mythology and Theology
The four elements, fire, water, earth, and air—the first and third typified by the lion and the serpent—were deified and worshiped. So, too, the sun, moon and planets were objects of regard. Babylonian influence wove into Mithraism its theories of the control by each of the planets of one day in the week, and with each a metal was associated, while the signs of the zodiac, which take creation under their influence, marked the devotions of the months in their turn. In the background as the primal cause which created and governed all things was Kronos, Unending Time, figured as a lion-headed human figure with four wings, sexless and passionless, his legs and body in the embrace (sometimes sixfold) of a serpent (representing the motion of the sun in the ecliptic), the head of which rested on his head. The figure carried a key, a scepter, and a torch, while the insignia of other deities (the thunderbolt of Zeus, the hammer and tongs of Hephæstus, the cock and cone of Æsculapius) were arranged about it to indicate that Kronos embodied the qualities of all the gods. He was fate, destiny, supreme cause, the ultimate creator. The dualism inherent in the parent religion continued its theoretic influence, leading to constant need for interposition by the savior, the part assumed by Mithra, who was called mesites, “mediator,” first because he inhabited the air, midway between heaven and earth, on account of which the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him; and, second, because he was middleman between the ineffable, unknowable, and unapproachable god and the race of men. In many of the monuments of Mithraism appear two torch-bearers, interpreted as the double incarnation of Mithra, with himself forming a triad or triple Mithra. One of these, with torch erect, symbolized the growing sun and life; Mithra himself, in the center, was the sun at noon and the vigor of life; the other torch-bearer, with torch inverted, was the declining sun and death. Mithra himself is pictured in the mythology as born of the rock, and the sculptured representation of this event, common in the mithræums, showed him issuing from the living rock with knife and torch in his hands. It was then his task to demonstrate his invincible strength, and his first trial was against the sun, whom he vanquished, then crowned with the rayed crown and made his faithful ally. His next labor was with the bull, and this became the central point in the Mithraic myth, the portrayal of which furnished the set piece in Mithraic art which corresponds to the cross or the crucifix in Christian art. The bull was the first creature made by Ormuzd. It was caught and mastered after a severe struggle, and dragged by Mithra to his cave, whence it escaped. But Mithra was commanded to pursue and sacrifice it, which the pitying god reluctantly did; then from its body sprang all useful herbs, from its spinal marrow wheat, from its blood the grape which furnished the wine used in the mysteries, and from the seminal fluid all useful animals, while its soul became Silvanus, guardian of herds, also a great figure in the mysteries. Thus the death of the bull was the birth of life, and for this reason took its high place in the ceremonial and art of the Mithraic cultus. Meanwhile the first pair had been created and were put under the protection of Mithra. This was necessary because Ahriman was assailing humanity; drought, flood, conflagration, pestilence, and other dangers were met and conquered by Mithra, and then his labors were ended, the conclusion of which was celebrated by a last supper, after which he retired to heaven, whence he still protects his worshipers.
5. Anthropology, Eschatology
But the battle between Ormuzd and Ahriman continues, so far as humanity is concerned. Life is a warfare, and to win, the faithful must ever obey the commands of Ormuzd. What the explicit commands were is not known, but that the Persian ethics persisted is clear. Purity was the end set before man, sensuality was to be avoided; lustrations
and ablutions were therefore frequent. Philosophic speculation was at a minimum, practical effort at a premium. In this contest Mithra ever helps the devout, ever conquers the powers of darkness, and on this account he bears the Persian epithet nabarze
, Gk. aniketos
, Lat. invictus
, “victorious.” The psychology of man is as follows: An infinite multitude of souls preexisted in the ethereal heavens, and these descend to inhabit the bodies of men. As they descend, they pass through the realms governed by the planets and receive from them certain qualities, the proportion of which determines the character of the man. Thus from Saturn was received the determining dispositions, from Jupiter ambition, from Venue sensual appetite, from Mercury other desires, from Mars combativeness, from the moon vital energy, and from the sun intellectual powers. At death judgment by Mithra decided the soul’s fate. If it was to return to heaven, it was enabled by the savior Mithra to satisfy the guardian of the gate to each sphere, where it gave up the qualities received on its descent, and so passed to the eighth sphere to enjoy life with Mithra. It is almost certain that the dogma of the resurrection of the flesh was a later addition to the eschatology. The final consummation will be the destruction of the world, a wonderful bull like the pristine bull will appear, Mithra will descend, waken all men to life, separate the good and the bad, will sacrifice the bull and give the fat mixed with wine to the good and thus immortalize them, while a fire will consume the wicked, including Ahriman and his demons.
That the doctrine always remained pure is of course unlikely. The syncretism has been sufficiently indicated, and it is not unlikely that each district had its own coloringin Rome Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva were spoken of in the religion, while in Celtic regions Celtic deities appear in the Mithraic crypts. But while syncretism existed, Persian conceptions were the guiding principles.
6. The Mysteries.
The Mithraic liturgy is probably wholly lost, the Mithraic Ritual (London, 1907) issued by G. R. S. Mead being almost certainly Gnostic and not Mithraic. Indications are clear that at least part of the ritual was in Persian. There were seven degrees of initiation, in which the mystic assumed the names successively of raven, griffin, soldier, lion, Persian, courier of the sun, and father; on certain occasions a garb suggesting the name was put on and the actions of the bird or animal were simulated, in this way recalling the mimetic action common in the other mysteries of the period. The original number of degrees was probably only tworaven and lion, the subsequent increase being due to development in doctrine, perhaps to a desire to increase the awe and mystery, and also to the sacredness of the number seven. The first three degrees were preparatory only, and did not admit to the mysteries proper. The real initiation was called sacramentum, possibly from the oath not to divulge the doctrine and rites of which the initiate gained knowledge. The various steps were accompanied by ablutions and aspersions, signifying the purging away of sins. It would seem that on attaining the rank of soldier, the candidate was branded with a hot iron. In the grade of lion, typical of fire, water, the enemy of fire, was not used, and purification was with honey. Those who had passed the grade of lion were called participants, because to them was administered a sacrament of bread and water or wine commemorative of Mithra’s banquet after he had finished his labors. Participation in this was supposed to impart immortality. Before partaking, the initiate underwent severe trials, physical and mental, endured prolonged fasting, and had part in dramatic representations which approached the terrible. Above these seven grad was a priesthood (sacerdos, artistes) which had charge of the ritual, conducted the threefold daily worship at morning, noon, and evening (toward the east, south, and west respectively), also the worship of the planet which governed each day, and replenished the ever-burning sacred fire. The sixteenth day of each month was a Mithraic festival, and Dec. 25 was probably a great feast. Initiations were probably at the vernal equinox. The sodalities were twofold, spiritual brotherhoods and legal associations. In the latter capacity they elected officials not spiritual in function, who conducted the secular and property affairs. The expenses were met by voluntary contributions, and the conduct of modern church life was anticipated in practically every respect in these directions. The progress of a mithræum and its community from indigence to affluence is sometimes clearly marked in the change from a rude chapel to a costly temple. The communities of each temple must have been small, possibly not largely exceeding one hundred. Thus the conception of brotherhood was fostered, as also an intensity of loyalty which well accounts for the tenacity of the cult. Conditions inside, where all met on the ground of equality, furnished a strong contrast with the social conditions in the empire, where extremes so great were furnished between the masses and the class. Yet women were not admitted; Cumont affirms that not a single inscription occurs out of the hundreds known which implies a female initiate or even one who made a gift. This deficiency may have been supplied by the quasi alliance with the cult of the Mater Magna, who in the West took the place of Anahita in the East; and under still other influences there was introduced the blood bath in which a bull was slain over a lattice and the blood was allowed to flow upon a person beneath. This was connected with the Mazdian belief, and was thought to effect the renewal of life to the soul.
7. Art and Architecture
The Mithraism of the barbaric world no doubt celebrated its mysteries in caves, and this memory was preserved in the fact that the mithræum continued to be an underground structure, in a crypt so fitted up as to be susceptible of an illumination throwing into strong relief the cultic objects. The central representation was the tauroctonous Mithra. The torch-bearers might guard the approach, the lion of Mithra was there, two altars, the lion-headed Kronos, the zodiacal signs, the symbols of the different gradesall these
were the adornments of the mithræum, while the illumination was probably so arranged as to impress the neophyte during the initiation. Along the sides, at least in some cases, were the benches at which the assistants knelt and prayed. In general, there is reason to suppose that as great differences existed between the Mithraic temples as between Christian churches, due to the resources, taste, and ambition of the communities which they served. The art of Mithraism is original neither in motif nor execution. The central figure of the tauroctonous Mithra goes back to a group by a sculptor of the school of Pergamon made in imitation of the sacrificing Victory of the temple of Athena Nike, while the dying Alexander furnished the type of the Mithra of this group. In general, the figures used in the West were derived from the current types of GrecoRoman art; Kronos, however, in the main kept his Asiatic form, the ugly leontocephalous figure entwined with the serpent, though at least one example exists where the head and face are rendered human with a cold calm countenance, while, the lion’s head is placed as a sort of medallion on the breast. In most cases the objects have little artistic value; by far the greater number of Mithraic objects known are either votive offerings—crude and formless—or such as were made to serve in the humble homes of the devotees in the same way as crucifixes now serve to fix at home the attention of devout Roman Catholics. But the Phrygian cap and robes bear witness still to the eastern origin and Asiatic content of the teaching. Cumont claims that Mithraic art influenced strongly Christian art, that Mithra shooting at the rock became Moses smiting the rock; the sun raising Mithra from the ocean became the ascension of Elijah in the chariot of fire; the tauroctonous Mithra became Samson rending the lion; while the figures of heaven, earth, ocean, sun, moon, planets, the zodiacal signs, the winds, the seasons, and the like, found on Christian sarcophagi and in mosaics and miniatures are claimed by Cumont as adaptations of Mithraic models..
8. The Decay.
The decay of Mithraism was begun by the attack of the barbarians on the Roman empire, and naturally fell first where Mithraism was strongest, on the outposts. Diocletian favored the religion because it opposed Christianity. Under Constantine imperial favor was withdrawn, and Christianity demanded the repression of the cult. A Roman panegyric of the year 362 says that under Constantius no one dared to look at the rising or setting sun, and that farmers and sailors were afraid to observe the stars, and this very vividly suggests not only active persecution of the Mithraic religion, but also implies that those objects were regarded with worship in the way which the cultic objects suggests. Julian’s short reign was a time of favor to this cult, for that prince regarded himself as under the favor of Mithra and introduced the practise of the worship at Constantinople. When George, patriarch of Alexandria, was slain by a mob roused to fury by his attempt to build a church on the site of a ruined mithræum, the emperor addressed a comparatively mild remonstrance to the city. After Julian’s death, the attack of Christianity was definite and furious. But the contest was no local nor easy matter. Mithraism had its temples from India to Scotland, its devotees in families of senatorial rank, among the merchants, in the ranks of laborers and slaves, and especially in the military camps, and these devotees were inspired with sincerity in worship, and were governed to no small degree by a real nobility of teaching, and uplifted by the hope of immortality which was a fundamental tenet of the cult. At times the persecution was bloody, and the remains prove that the priests were sometimes slain and their corpses were buried in the mithræums in order to desecrate the site. A feeble period of revival took place under Eugenius, but Theodosius ended the prospects of the cult. GEO. W. GILMORE.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The one book on the subject, gathering up what little is known both from patriotic and classical authors and from art objects and excavations, is F. Cumont, Texies gt monuments figurés relatife aux mystères de Mithra, Brussels, 2 vols., 1896-99. The conclusions and part of the discussion are available for readers of English in the Open Court, xvi (1902), passim. cf. xvii (1903), and in F. Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, Chicago, 1903. Consult further: E. Renan, Marc-Aurèle, pp. 579-580, Paris, 1882, Eng. transl., p. 332, London, n.d.; W. H. Roscher, Lexikon der griechischen und romischen Mythologie, ii. 3028 sqq., Leipsie, 1896; S. Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, London, 1898; idem, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, ib. 1904; M. Bossuet, in Archie far Religionnwissenschaft, iv (1901). 160 sqq.; J. von Grill, Die persische Mysterienreligion im romischen Reiche und das Christentum, Tübingen,1903; J. G. Fraser, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, pp. 195 sqq., London, 1906; G. R. S. Mead, The Mysteries of Mithra, London,1907; F. Passauer, Die Saalburg und der Mithraskult, Frankfort, 1907. Magazine literature of some importance is indicated in Richardson, Encycolpaedia, p. 738.