The cult of Mithras is one of the least understood religions of the ancient world. We do know that it begun in the city of Rome in the late first century CE before disappearing by around the fourth century. The cult was centered on the worship of a Romanized version of the Persian god of the sun, Mitra, which means that although the cult of Mithras was a new religious movement within the Roman Empire, worship of this god dates well back into the second millennium BCE (1).
Creation Myth and Beliefs
Despite there being no evidence that initiates of the cult practiced bull slaying, the prominence of this theme suggests that it must have been very important to its mythology. Mithras is commonly depicted as a man in Persian clothing slaying a bull, and from the slain bull springs forth new life and a new cosmic order. As one scholar writes,
“The sacrifice was for the good of man and of the world: from the body of the bull sprang all useful herbs; from its spinal marrow, wheat; from its blood, the grape which sup- plied the wine used in the mysteries; and from the spinal fluid, all useful animals. Its soul became Silvanus, guardian of the herds (who, like other Greco-Roman deities, was incorporated into the Mithraic pantheon). Thus the death of the bull was the birth of life” (2).
The story teaches that Mithras was instructed by the god Ahura Mazda to sacrifice the white bull. Mithras reluctantly sacrifices the bull which then undergoes metamorphosis and turns into the moon. Mithras’s cloak is also transformed except into the vault of the sky, with the shining planets and fixed stars. The first pair of humans were created and put under Mithras’ protection. He defends them from drought, flood, pestilence, and the other evils caused by Ahriman (the opponent of Ahura Mazda). These successes were celebrated by a last supper, after which Mithras returned to heaven and from where he still protects his worshipers. Mithras was remembered by his worshipers for bringing light and purity to the minds of men, and filling the soul with divine light, love, and truth. Initiates of the cult also believed that the human soul must be liberated from the confines of the body and return to the unchanging realm of the fixed stars from where it came. This ascent to the sky was prefigured by Mithras himself, when he left Earth in a chariot.
One of the reasons so little is known about the cult of Mithras is because its members left no writings. The only textual evidence comes from the Roman historians Strabo and Porphyry and Christian writers such as Justin Martyr and St. Jerome. A great deal therefore hangs on archaeological discoveries such as statues, inscriptions, and mosaics across sites in France, Germany, Britain, the Rhine and Danube regions, and Rome. An important discovery was in the relatively small underground temple meeting places where initiates of the cult met together. These are known as Mithraea. These spaces served to facilitate the ritual meal, which was based upon a story of a meal Mithras had with the sun god after he slaughtered the bull (3). This became a regular and very important feature of Mithraic worship. Archaeology also shows that Mithraea were located in privately owned buildings as well as in public areas. For example, they have been found in or near to public or quasi-public spaces such as barracks, baths, circuses, and offices, which suggests that Mithraism had an official or quasi-official status in the Roman Empire by the third century. Mithraea can still be visited today at the Baths of Caracalla, one beneath the Basilica of San Clemente, and another by the underground Basilica of Porta Maggiore.
The cult of Mithras appears to have lacked any organizational hierarchy, and it was particularly popular within the Roman military given the large number of dedicatory inscriptions to Mithras from military men. Slaves were also a part of the cult and the fact that only the names of men appear on the inscriptions suggest that women were not allowed to join. Roman Mithraism was also an initiation cult which meant that hopeful joiners were required to perform a series of rituals, although historians are unaware what these rituals were. According to St. Jerome there were seven ranks or levels to the cult’s structure that initiates could rise through: the ravens (korakes) the secrets (kryphiae), the soldiers (milites), the lions (leontes), the Persians, the sun-runners (heliodromoi), and the fathers (4). These ranks have been corroborated by a physical Mithraea discovery in Ostia. Mithraism was also secretive meaning that its members worshiped in temples often built into caves. However, it was not entirely hidden away as Mithraea were also located in public areas.
The End of Mithraism
Roman Mithraism was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity, and after emperor Constantine had accepted Christianity in the fourth century Mithraism rapidly declined. It lost much of its imperial favour and finally met its end within the fourth century CE (5), although dedications to Mithra appear again between about 357 and 387 but only in Rome (6). Many of its temples were abandoned, walled up, or destroyed by Christians, although some of them continue to exist.
1. Martin, Luther. 1989. “Roman Mithraism and Christianity.” Numen 36: 2-15.
2. Wagener, A. Pelzer. 1960. “Christianity and the Oriental Cults.” The Classical Outlook 37 (7): 79-80. p. 79.
3. Beck, Roger. 2000. “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel.” The Journal of Roman Studies 90: 145-180. p. 145.
4. St. Jerome, Ep. 107, ch. 2.
5. Beck, Roger. 1987. “Merkelbach’s Mithras.” Phoenix 41(3): 296-316. p. 299.
6. Merkelbach’s, Reinhold. “Mithraism Persian religion.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Available.
Cool post. I’ve been thinking about this cult for some time now, and I’ve wondered how prominent it would have been in the first century. I think you’re right about how it centres around the worship of the sun (eternality, life, knowledge), and I’ve wondered how it might have influenced certain things within the New Testament. Have you found any evidence of this? Nice work!
None of the sources I read state that the cult of Mithras influenced the NT. This would make sense if the NT, at least the majority of it, was completed well within the first century. Christians only start showing an awareness of the cult around the 2nd century and third century, in the form of Martyr, Jerome, and Tertullian. This is because by that time Roman Mithraism had expanded substantially across the Mediterranean. Besides this, a few commentators noted some similarities in some things, such as belief in the soul and its immortality, and something akin to a baptism, but nothing remarkable or that evidences borrowing of symbols or themes.
This is interesting. Thanks, James. I appreciate it.
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