In Part 1 I gave an introduction to the religion of ancient Rome. Part 2 is going to cover the Roman Cult of Mithras by looking at its history, mythos, symbolism, and what is known about its initiations. There is a great deal of misinformation out there concerning the Cult of Mithras by anti-Christians seeking to revise the history of Christianity and by fanatical Christians spreading an agenda against anything pagan. Due to its secretive nature and no existing documentation, the study of the Cult of Mithras is done primarily from archaeological research done on the surviving temples around Europe and the Middle East. Some texts that mention the Cult of Mithras or the god Mithras were authored by Plutarch, Porphyry, Tertullian, and Origen.
The Cult of Mithras was one of several mystery cults practiced within the Roman Empire. Worshipers of the Cult of Mithras, or sometimes known as the Mithraic Mysteries, were all male and particularly popular among soldiers. It is not surprising to see why the Cult of Mithras was popular among soldiers. The religion of ancient Rome was pragmatic (practical) and more contractual than spiritual while mystery cults concerned themselves with establishing a personal relationship with a particular deity and on one's salvation. The Cult of Mithras, with its warlike imagery and promise of salvation, must have been a natural fit with an occupation where soldiers were sent to the far ends of the empire far from home and where death was almost a certainty. Initiates referred to themselves as "syndexioi" which means "united by the handshake." It was composed of 7 grades (or degrees) of initiation: Raven, Bride, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun Runner, and Father. The initiations and meetings often included meals that took place in their temples called "mithraeum." The Cult of Mithras was practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st century AD to the 4th century AD.
The Mithraic mysteries center on the Persian god Mithra (Mithras being the Greco-Roman spelling), but scholars debate whether or not this Mithras was the same as the Mithra found in Zoroastrianism. Some argue that the Cult of Mithras was merely inspired by the Persians, but the Roman Mithras may be a different god from the Persian Mithra as the former was a sun god while the latter was not; the Persian Mithra was a judicial deity and guardian of cattle, the harvest, and the waters. However, I will go further into the god Mithras and let the reader decide for himself.
The Cult of Mithras was most likely introduced into Rome through the wars the Roman Republic had with the Parthian Empire (Arsacid Empire) starting in 92 BC and the Roman Empire had with the Sasanian Empire (successors of the Parthians). Some believe that it was through the conquest of Armenia where the Cult of Mithras was introduced to the Roman legions and it should be noted that Armenia was the last holdout of the cult during its decline. The cult was established in Rome around 75 AD and made it to the provinces around 150 AD. Due to its popularity with Roman soldiers, the Cult of Mithras spread to the frontiers of the Roman Empire, to the Iberian Peninsula, Britain, and Scotland, Dacia (around modern-day Romania), Gaul, and Germania. It is said that the Mithraic Mysteries reached the height of popularity in the 3rd century AD leading into the 4th century AD. Along with the mithraea, there are also many altars and shrines that were dedicated by Roman Emperors. One such example would be with Emperor Diocletian who, in 307/308 AD, dedicated an altar of Mithras as the "benefactor of the Empire." With the rise of Christianity and the conversion of Constantine, the Mithraic Mysteries declined, but with the ascension of Emperor Julian, there was an attempt to keep the cult alive. However, during the reign of Theodosius I, all pagan worship was outlawed.
The Mithraic Mysteries centers on the worship of the Proto-Indian, Persian god Mithras. Some sources believe that he was the son of Ormuzd, a god of light, and Anahita, a virgin fertility goddess. Mithras himself was a god over contracts ("contract" being the etymological root of his name). He's also said to be the protector over the harvest, cattle, and water.
Mithras is said to have been born out of a rock on the Winter Solstice. Some legends of the birth of Mithras state that the rock from which he came contained both light and fire, making him a god of light and fire; although this may have been later changes to keep in sync with the newer adaptations of this god. The myth states that he was born wearing a Phrygian cap holding a dagger and a torch of light; Phrygia was a kingdom in what is modern Turkey, around the Sakarya River. Mithras is said to have remained celibate throughout his life and represented a system of ethics, temperance, and self-control.
The first mention of Mithras is in the Vedic (Hindu) Scriptures dating back to around 1400 BC, and over the years spread to Persia where the worship of Mithras spread. The Magus Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) reformed the Persian religion (now referred to as Zoroastrianism) which placed Mithras as a lesser deity beneath Ahura Mazda. According to Avesta, Ahura Mazda created Mithras in order to guarantee the authority of contracts and promises. Some believe that it is the association with the Babylonian god Shamash, their god of justice and a sun god, that Mithras was later seen as a sun god. With the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, Persian religions spread into the Hellenistic world.
The initiates of the Mithraic Mysteries met in temples called "mithraeum" (plural: mithraea). Mithraeum were often natural caves or small rooms beneath existing structures. They are typically found near sources of freshwater such as streams. One Mithraeum was discovered beneath the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. At its height of popularity, it is said that there may have been around 680 mithraea just in Rome. It is not known exactly how many there were around the Roman Empire, but today there still exists one in Bosnia, five in France, seventeen in Germany, three in Hungary, two in Israel, two in Romania, two in Spain, one in Switzerland, one in Syria, four in England, one in Armenia, and eight in Rome.
Mithraea were typically 10-12m long and 4-6m wide with raised benches called klinai on the sides where the initiates would eat their meals with a narrow aisle in between. From this commonly used floor plan seen with existing mithraea, that each mithraeum could only hold 30-40 individuals. If the mithraeum was beneath a building, there would be holes in the ceiling to allow light in. The ceiling of the mithraeum was also often painted with star-decked heaven. The mithraeum served as an area for initiation and where the ritualistic meals were held. Meals were particularly important to the initiates of the Mithraic Mysteries as they pertained to Mithras and the killing of the bull. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that a sacred fire was kept burning in the mithraea.
Mithraea were decorated with a variety of iconography. In every mithraeum there was a representation of Mithras killing a bull, often referred to as the "tauroctony." In some mithraeum there are still surviving images of each degree (see below). In some sculptures, Mithras is depicted carrying a rock on his back. Others show him wearing a cape with the stars in the inside lining while others show him emerging from a zodiac ring as some myths of Mithras believe he helped create the physical world. Other representations show Mithras attended by two torch-bearers, Cautes and Cautopates, who were present at his birth. Symbolically, the mithraeum had several meanings: 1) it served as a microcosm of the universe, 2) represented the cave where Mithras is said to have killed a bull, and 3) the process of purification of the soul. Many mithraea were later converted to crypts and tombs after the rise of Christianity.
One of the central icons and legends of the Mithraic Mysteries is the "Tauroctony". The Tauroctony, from the Greek word "tauroktonos" meaning "bull killing," concerns the myth where the god Mithras sacrifices a sacred bull. Ahura Mazda is said to have sent a crow, an animal traditionally used as a messenger of the gods, to Mithras and ordered him to kill the bull in a cave in order to create plants and animals. Sculptures and reliefs commonly show Mithras straddling the bull, grasping it by the nose with his left hand, and with his right hand stabbing the dagger into the bull's shoulder. It is also often shows dogs beneath the bull drinking the blood, a scorpion attacks the bull's genitals, and a raven sits on the bull's back; other reliefs show a lion, a boar, or a snake. There are other differences seen on a variety of reliefs still existing in uncovered mithraea around Europe and these differences are thought to be the result of the different native cultures being fused with Roman religion and the Cult of Mithras.
As mentioned above, Cautes and Cautopates are sometimes shown in depictions of Mithras. In the Tauroctony, Cautes is to the right of Mithras and below the sun in his chariot while Cautopates is to the left of Mithras and below the moon. Both being torchbearers, Cautes' torch is held up while Cautopates' torch points downward (may be shown as extinguished). Some have interpreted that Mithras and his two attendants represent three phases of the sun during the daytime: dawn (the rising sun), midday (the sun at meridian height), and dusk (the setting sun). The myth states that after Mithras killed the bull that he kneels before the sun god, Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), and both then dine on the slain bull. They are said to have eaten the bull on a table draped in the hide of the slain bull.
Initiates are said to eat a meal together in a mithraeum. It is speculated that in some instances to imitate and revere the gods Mithras and Sol Invictus in order to maintain a personal relationship. From paintings and reliefs, it is believed that initiates in lower grades, Raven through Lion, act as attendants of higher grades and serve food during the meal. While some believe that the killing of a bull was purely figurative and not actually killed by the cult members, archaeological evidence shows that bulls were killed and eaten, but when bulls were not available they would dine on other domesticated animals.
Some believe that the Tauroctony has an astrological meaning behind it. Some have speculated that the killing of the bull coincided with the end of the Age of Taurus and the beginning of the Age of Aries which occurred around 2000 BC when some think that the Mithraic Mysteries originated.
Initiates referred to themselves as "syndexioi" and while they were united in this sense they were still divided into seven grades: Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Bride), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun Runner), and Pater (Father). Handshakes are seen as a commitment to a contract and as Mithras was a god of contracts the use of a handshake is very appropriate for those who worshiped him. Handshakes are also a gesture of friendship.
From the archaeological evidence, members were expected to progress through the first four grades, but few would go beyond the last three grades. Neophytes were said to have gone through some kind of trial or preparation before going through the initiation. The severity of these trials varies depending on the sources, though the reliability of some is questionable. The purpose of these trials though would be to ensure that the individual would be prepared to go through the initiation and be worthy of the secrets of the mystery cult.
The initiations would include some kind of oath to never reveal any of the secrets of the Mithraic Mysteries, ablutions, purification rites, admonishments, and marking the initiate on the hand (from the frescoes it could be done by firebrand or tattooing). The initiation was conferred by one who had attained the grade of Pater, or Father.
Most initiates were said to not advance beyond the grade of Lion. These in the lower grades attended to those in the higher grades, but could still participate in the privileges of the cult such as the sacred meal. It is possible that lower initiates took turns serving and other times were served.
The grades of initiation for the Cult of Mithras are extremely fascinating though we have limited resources to study them. The existing symbolism though is rich and provides us with an insight into each grade. While there is no existing literature on the specificity of each of the seven grades, here is some information on each of them:
Corax or Raven
The Raven plays an important role in Mithraic Mysteries as the Raven was sent to Mithras as a messenger of Ahura Mazda who sent Mithras to kill the sacred bull. While Mercury is the messenger of the gods in Roman mythology, the raven has replaced him as a symbol, but Mercury is still associated with the Raven in this context. On a cup found in Ostia (near Rome), there is an inscription of "Nama Coracibus tutela Mercurii" meaning "Hail to the Ravens under the protection of Mercury".
Birds often serve that role in a variety of other mythologies. Huginn and Muninn, ravens in Norse mythology, served as messengers of Odin. In Hinduism, crows are messengers of the dead to the living. In Christianity, the dove is often used, as seen with the story of Noah's flood where God sent a dove to inform Noah that dry land had returned. In Roman mythology were associated with good luck. In Celtic mythology, ravens were associated with warfare and death. In several Native American mythoi, the raven is involved in the creation of the world, but is also considered a trickster god. In Japanese mythology, the raven is seen as a guide. In Christianity, Ravens are used as descriptions, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.
Along with being messengers, birds are associated with knowledge and enlightenment. In Egyptian mythology, Thoth (represented by an Ibis) is the god of magic, writing, and numerous sciences. In Roman mythology, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was accompanied by an owl. Birds were also used in various mythologies to bring life (the stork) and to represent the soul in the afterlife. It should be noted that pagan gods and goddesses would also take the form of birds for a variety of reasons.
The Raven would naturally be associated with the element of Air, but some have said that water baptism is a part of this initiation to symbolize the purification of the soul. From frescoes and mosaics, initiates of this grade as said to wear a raven mask. Being the first degree and entrance into the Mithraic Mysteries, the Raven is meant to represent the death of neophyte and rebirth into mysteries, and his new spiritual life. Other symbols associated with this grade are the beaker and caduceus (staff of Mercury).
Nymphus or Bride
With this degree, it is important to remember that mystery cults were about becoming closer with a particular deity. While this degree is named "Bride" it should be noted that it meant not a literal wedding, but establishing a bond with Mithras and does not preclude civil marriages. Some Christian fundamentalists have attempted to denigrate this degree as being homoerotic, but scholars, even Christians, agree that there was no evidence that sexual rites were involved with the Mithraic Mysteries.
A mural depicting this grade shows an initiate wearing a veil and is under the protection of the goddess Venus. From the text of Julius Firmicus Maternus there is a concerning this grade which states: "Behold, Nymphus, hail Nymphus, hail new light." Some have hypothesized that this statement would be made as the veil would be removed from the initiate. This ceremony would also involve the candidate offers a cup of water to a statue of Mithras where the cup symbolizes the candidate's heart and the water his love for Mithras. This grade is associated with the element of Water.
Murals of Nymphus also contains a torch, a diadem, a mirror, and a lamp. Torches and lamps are obvious symbols of light, knowledge, and guidance. Torches are often symbols of hope and enlightenment. When a torch points downward they are meant to symbolize death while the opposite is meant to symbolize life. One of the most famous torches in today’s world is the Olympic Torch which is meant to symbolize the fire given to mankind by Prometheus. It's interesting to note that lamps and torches are connected to marriage ceremonies, even in the Christian text.
A diadem is simply a crown. Crowns, mitres, headdresses, hats, and so on have traditionally been symbols of authority or sovereignty. For Christians, the crown (and those who wear it) is said to remind us of the Crown of Thorns Christ wore as well as Christ is the King of Kings. Symbolically we can see through its circular shape it denotes perfection, which Heaven is seen as, and eternal life, and while wearing it we unite the spiritual world with this material world where the sovereign can receive divine inspiration to justly rule.
Mirrors in the ancient world were considered a luxury and indicated social status to the owner. They were usually polished bronze or black stone. Mirrors are symbols of introspection and reflection, both physical and spiritual. As the physical mirror reflects our appearance so too does the spiritual mirror reflect the soul. Mirrors were also considered gateways to other worlds and used in divination. To break a mirror is still considered bad luck.
Miles or Soldier
According to the Avesta (the Zoroastrian sacred text), Mithras was an invincible god who sought to secure victory for his followers on the battlefield against evil. All initiates who attained the grade of Miles were said to be enrolled in service to Mithras. In murals in Santa Prisca and Ostia, displays initiates dressed as soldiers with kitbags, helmets, and lances. Being a grade centering on warfare, this grade was associated with the god Mars (the god of war) and while Mars is associated with fire this grade is associated with the element Earth. With this grade, it is presumed that the initiate is battling against his lower self.
According to Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus), the initiate is marked on the forehead (style unknown) and the candidate is offered a crown/wreath at the point of the sword. Once his hands are freed from bondage he takes off crown/wreath stating that being a follower of Mithras he needed no crown/wreath. This is said to be a test of the candidate’s courage and devotion to Mithras. Other symbols associated with this grade are a drum, belt, and armor.
Leo or Lion
The fourth grade is the Lion. The Lion is highly regarded in the legends of Mithras and is often depicted in the Tauroctony murals and reliefs. Murals depicting this grade show an initiate dressed in a long scarlet and with a fire-shovel. This grade is associated with the element Fire and the god Jupiter. Since water is the opposite of fire, honey was used as a purifying agent to cleanse the initiate. Baptism by fire for the candidate may also be symbolic of the destruction of evil by Mithras and the conflagration of the earth. Those purified by fire would be immune from the destructive power of the fire. Along with being an attendant at meals, those initiates who had received the grade of Leo also were said to attend the fire in the mithraeum.
Lions have been used as symbols of royalty, courage, and the king of animals for thousands of years by cultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Sumerian and Babylonian mythologies, the lion was a symbol of kingship. In Greek mythology, the Nemean Lion was a vicious monster whose mane was impervious to mortal weapons and who was killed by Hercules; the constellation Leo is said to represent the Nemean Lion. There are many uses of lions in Christianity including the story of Daniel, St. Mark was symbolized by a lion, and the Tribe of Judah used the emblem of a lion. These are but a few examples of lion mythology.
Perses or Persian
This grade is associated with the Persian origins and Zoroastrian Magi. Murals depict the Perses dressed in a grey tunic and under the protection of the moon. Like Leo, the candidate is purified with honey, but because the Perses was considered the guardian of fruit. According to ancient Persian lore, honey came from the moon which is why the moon is associated with this grade.
Another symbol associated with Perses is the sickle/scythe. These symbols are often symbolic of time and transition just as is the moon, but some say that Mithras was the divine reaper (being the protector of the harvest). The symbolic meaning associated with this instrument has always stood for the reaping, to include humanity and the cutting off of life. The personification of death is often seen carrying a scythe or sickle. There are many legends, myths, and lore connected with this feared entity. Today it is known as the "Grim Reaper", but depending on the time and culture, it has gone by many other names. The Scythe was not always seen as the weapon of choice for the Reaper, with the agrarian cultures we see the attachment. One of my favorite mythologies was the Greek mythologies. In it, there are three Fates or Moirai, named: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. While all of them were regarded as cruel due to their inexorable duty, it was Atropos who was feared as she was the one who wielded the shears that would cut the thread of life, while her sisters spun and measured the thread of life. In the Book of Revelations there is a similar reference to the scythe and reaping:
Heliodromus or Sun Runner
Sometimes known as Courier of the Sun or Sun Runner, Heliodromus is the sixth grade of the Mithraic Mysteries. The grade designates an initiate as a servant of Sol Invictus, the sun god. It is guessed that the initiation includes a re-enactment of the meal that Mithras and Sol Invictus share after the killing of the sacred bull.
In murals, initiates are dressed in red garments with a yellow belt and holding a globe in their left hand. They are also depicted with a whip, a torch, and a halo. The whip is meant to symbolize implement needed to urge the horses onward that carried the sun through the sky each day. Whips also symbolize domination, sovereignty, slavery, and penance. Halos are rings of light that surround a person in artwork and are used to indicate holiness, divinity, or sacredness.
Pater or Father
This is the final and highest grade in the Cult of Mithras. Initiates who reach this pinnacle are said to be Mithras' representative on earth and thus are depicted to be dressed like him. It is unclear whether or not a mithraeum had more than one Pater, but it is unlikely since the Pater was considered the teacher, mentor, and father to the initiates of that mithraeum. With the uncovering of mithraea throughout the old Roman Empire, there were inscriptions like "pater patrum" meaning "Father of Fathers" many have speculated that there was a central authority that all the mithraea reported to, but there is no evidence to suggest this.
The symbols associated with this grade are the staff, the Phrygian cap, and the curved sword. The use of staff by officers is very symbolic and has been used in a variety of cultures. The most obvious use is by the god Mercury, who was the messenger of the gods, and who carried the caduceus, a type of staff. The caduceus was used to ward off evil and to ensure that he was unimpeded in his journey. Carrying a staff is a mark of authority and we see this with the king's scepter, the bishop's or verger's staff, the mace of Parliament, and, Biblically, with the staff of Moses.
The Phrygian Cap is a soft felt or wool conical headdress fitting closely around the head and characterized by a pointed crown that curls forward and is also known as the Cap of Liberty or Symbolizing Cap. The Phrygian Cap also carries some of the symbolic meaning as the diadem, but also stands as a symbol of enlightenment and freedom. Some have gone so far as to say that the Phrygian cap is the origin of the mitre worn by priests.
The Sword, an emblem of duality, not only symbolizes security, but also light, purification, righteousness, spiritual transition, and from its double-edged it shows us the defensiveness and destructiveness. The sword is like the mind and knowledge, without proper training and honing of skill, one can cause great damage and face many challenges. The scholar and the master swordsman alike must be well-trained and keep their metaphorical and physical sword sharp.
Very little knowledge on the Cult of Mithras exists today, but there seems to be a growing interest in recent years. I am curious to see what future discoveries reveal of this mystery cult. In Part 3, I will compare and contrast this initiatic tradition to Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Christianity.
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