MITHRAS, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the wall!
“Rome is above the nations, but Thou art over all!”
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!
–Rudyard Kipling, “Song to Mithras” (1922)
During my lunch break yesterday I went to the Christkindl Market in Daley Plaza, Chicago’s annual Yuletide celebration of Teutonic culture and the contributions of German immigrants to the city’s rich, culturally woven tapestry of history. Amidst the cheerful booths showcasing Bavarian woodcarvers’ wares such as nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks, and the food vendors with their mouthwatering apfelstrudels and warm and spicy glüwein to ward away winter’s chill, you’ll find a Nativity scene, the subject of many a tourist’s photograph. In front of it, stretched out on a fence, stands a banner from the Freedom from Religion Foundation brazenly wishing passers-by a “Happy Winter Solstice!” There’s a message below the headline, the first sentence of which reads: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the Birth of the Unconquered Sun–the TRUE reason for the season!” I smiled and applauded, then took the obligatory photo for my Instagram account. I thought warmly of the first Winter Solstice public ritual I’d ever participated in, way back in 1999, which honored the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) as the god Mithras. I was obsessed with researching everything I could about the cult of Mithras, and I took it upon myself to write a research paper that I presented to the Gardnerian coven I belonged to at the time. I’d like to share the fruits of my research here, as Winter Solstice is imminent, and I like to muse on how this Persian import of a cult provided serious competition for a nascent Christianity in the Late Roman Empire. Oh, if only history could have turned out differently…
Mithrasism was one of the most pervasive and enduring of mystery religions in the Roman Empire. An initiatory tradition, we know that it consisted of seven degrees of initiation; each degree had its own esoteric, moral, and ritual principles that led the follower deeper into the secrets of the God.
It was a religion of salvation that drew men–and men only, as women appear to have been excluded–from all social backgrounds. Its appeal extended from slaves and freed men to members of the traditionalist aristocracy, military, and merchant class. Even some emperors were devotees, such as Trajan, Commodus, and (drum roll, please) Constantine the Great.
Like the fledgling Christian religion, Mithrasism espoused salvation based on faith and compassion; unlike Christianity, however, it emphasized salvation based on knowledge and valor as well. The Mithrasian components of a Sacred Meal, which is presided over by a figure in the hierarchy with the title of Pater (Father) who marks communally consumed bread in the shape of a solar cross, was undoubtedly plagiarized by the early Church.
Although there were no female followers, there was a female grade in the seven-grade initiation structure and the religion did incorporate worship of the Goddesses Hekate, Isis, and Luna.
Extreme discipline was required from the devotees: most abstained from sex altogether, or were allowed to marry only once; they were required to surrender all accolades to the God; bravery, fearlessness, scrupulous honesty, modesty, and truthfulness were cardinal virtues. As with early Christianity, Mithrasism exercised a more contemplative, less spectacular appeal to its followers.
We don’t know how people were approached to become members of the religion, what criteria they had to meet, or how they were promoted from one degree to another.
Mithrasist liturgy incorporated such texts as the life and deeds of Mithras, Platonic dialogues (The Republic, Timeus, Critias), Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and the Zarathustrian Hymn to Avesta.
The Indian Mitra / The Iranian Mithra
In both cultures, Mitra/Mithra was associated with fire and the sun. He established justice for His worshipers and oversaw contracts. As His vantage point is heavenly, He presides over the stars as well; the stars were known as His eyes (in Iran He was the “God of the Ten Thousand Eyes”). His hearing was similarly exalted; He heard the prayers of his followers, however quietly whispered.
Zarathustra, prophet of the ancient Iranians who founded the first revealed religion, announced the primacy of Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who was served by the Amentas Spenta, or “Bounteous Immortals.” Among these was Mithra, whom Ahura Mazda declared to be “as worthy of worship as Myself” (The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, p.75). In the Vedic references of India (notably the Rg Veda, c. 1500 B.C.E.), Mitra is normally mentioned with a partner, Varuna. As Mitra was identified with fire, earth, the color red, morning and day, and the right-hand side, so was Varuna identified with water, heaven, evening and night, and the left-hand side. Between Them, the two Gods encompassed the universe and ruled it the same way They ruled the affairs of humanity: with an assurance of order’s supremacy over chaos. Mitra could bestow benefits to His followers or retribution to those who violated contracts (disease was seen as the most popular form of divine retribution).
Iranians placed emphasis on Mithra as overseer of contracts, as overseer of the rightness of action. He judged not only contracts between individuals, but pledges between nations: He was the first God to place the value of truth over the interests of His own cult, His own nation. As with the Indian Mitra, Mithra punished the impious, also by disease (leprosy in particular). He was seen as a chariot-riding God who conquered the armies of the Lord of Evil, Ahriman. Under the development of Zarathustrianism, Mithra was seen as the keeper of the holy fire, symbol of goodness and purification (physical as well as spiritual). Mithra became a God Who upheld an ordeal by fire, Who set the affairs of the cosmos and humankind in order, and was considered supreme among Ahura Mazda’s creations.
Both Mitra and Mithra presided over the cultivation of a sacred plant to be utilized in a ritualistic sacrificial meal. For the Hindus, it was the soma plant; for the Iranians, it was the haoma plant. In both cultures, the plant was crushed and its juices drunk as a ritual reminder of a time of immortality in a primeval religious past. Zarathustra established the sacrament of bread and wine as early as 650 B.C.E., and the Mithrasians continued the practice.
The Roman Mithras
The cult of Mitra/Mithra spread to Rome via cultural and commercial exchanges with the Persian Empire. Unlike India or Iran, there practically is no textual evidence to illuminate the worship of Mithras, save for scattered graffiti on temple walls and inscriptions next to murals that have survived (how many artifacts were destroyed by the ascendant, zealous Christian priests is anyone’s guess). Most of what is known about the Roman Mithras has been gleaned from archaeology: murals, statues, mosaics, altars, and even floor plans of the temples, known as Mithraeums.
In these artifacts, the God is portrayed as a young man, not older than His early thirties, Who is clean-shaven and wears a red Phrygian cap (now we know where the Smurfs got their fashion sense from!), red cloak (under whose folds reside stars and the cosmos), and either Persian trousers or a toga. His characteristic pose is that of holding down the great bull, which He is either about to stab or has already stabbed in the neck. This act of slaying the bull is a central motif to the entire religion of Mithrasism.
Mithraeums were built underground, just as early churches in Rome were made in the catacombs beneath the city. They were long, narrow chambers with a central aisle, which was lined on either side by benches (wherein the higher-ranking initiates would recline during the Sacred Meal). The aisle was oriented east-west. The eastern end contained the nave with the altar; here was where the icon of the bull-slaying scene, or Tauroctony (a Greek term), stood, along with niches for statues of other deities, etc. The western end served as the entrance and where the members robed themselves.
Each Mithraeum was decorated to resemble a cave, which in turn symbolized the cosmos (ceilings and walls, for example, were decorated with gemstones to represent stars). Holes were also bored through the ceiling to control how and when light was admitted; by shutting out most light, that which remained took on its true character.
Astrology and the concept of the transmigration of souls were central to the Mithrasian mindset. To the devotees of Mithras and followers of other mystery cults, the Milky Way was viewed as the ladder of stars upon which the souls of humankind descend (enter the world, are physically incarnated) and ascend (liberate themselves to rejoin the Source). The Tropic of Cancer was seen as the entry point, it was the northern gateway; the Tropic of Capricorn was the southern gate through which souls exited this world. The moon governed the former path (as the moon is the planetary ruler of Cancer the zodiac sign) and Saturn the latter (it’s the planetary ruler of Capricorn).
What does this have to do with the slaying of the bull? The path of the Milky Way flows straight through Taurus, who thus “sheds the blood” by which Mithras saved all humanity. In the Roman world, the Milky Way represented the celestial pathway of souls–the conduit between souls incarnating for a life on earth through the sign of Cancer and departing through the sign of Capricorn. The Milky Way is the Via Sacra (Cooper, p.71).
Besides Mithras and the bull, other images appear in the Tauroctony. All of these depict signs that lay along the celestial equator as it was seen from 4,000 to 2,000 B.C.E.: therefore, astronomical and astrological correspondences find their way into the theology of Mithrasism. These correspondences find expression in the seven-degree hierarchical grouping of the members.
Underneath the bull is a scorpion lying in wait; it pinches the bull’s genitals. This is not, as one might assume, a symbol of the stifling of the life-force; rather, it illustrates the weakness of our mortal natures (the underbelly of human nature, if you will): base instincts and the like. Recall that Mithrasians were called to be celibate or reign in their lustful impulses. Furthermore, in the Iranian tradition, the scorpion was an animal of Ahriman, and thus associated with evil. The scorpion’s starry correspondence was the constellation, Scorpius.
Leaping in front of the bull, eagerly lapping up its spilled blood, is a dog. The Iranian tradition teaches that this dog is Shraosha, Mithras’ hunting companion; in addition, Shraosha symbolized loyalty to the feudal obligation and lawfulness. Dogs had positive connotations to the Romans as well, symbolizing the loyalty and virtue of the lowly foot soldier (this association ties in to the third degree in the Mithrasist hierarchy, as we shall see). But there is a starry correspondent to the image of the dog: the constellation of Canis Minor. This constellation was thought of as “leaping” between the celestial equator and the Milky Way.
In the act of stabbing the bull, Mithras usually has his face turned away, not unlike Perseus in the act of beheading Medusa. In many versions of the Tauroctony, Mithras is facing away from the bull and looking at a crow/raven. The crow/raven is often perched on a ray of light. Some have interpreted this to mean that the raven is bearing an order from Sol that the bull must be slain; it could also mean, though, that the crow/raven is witnessing the act by which Mithras proves His superiority to the Sun God. The starry correspondent to this bird is the constellation Corvus.
Other images that appear in most depictions of the Tauroctony include the Divine Twins Cautes and Cautopates, a serpent, Sol, Luna, ears of wheat, and a lion-headed figure. Cautes and Cautopates are, simply put, miniature versions of Mithras Himself. Cautes, Who wears bright yellow tunic, holds aloft a torch that points up. Cautopates, Who is dressed in blue-gray, holds a torch that points downward. As reflections of Mithras, these Twins are linked to the constellation Orion.
The serpent’s depictions vary: sometimes it is underneath the bull near the scorpion, sometimes it joins the dog in eagerly lapping up the blood streaming from the bull’s neck. And sometimes it appears to be indifferent to the bull altogether. The serpent is linked to the constellation Hydra.
Sol usually wears a short red cape and is naked. He may or may not be riding in His chariot. Luna is always diametrically opposed to the position of Sol in the Tauroctony; She may or may not be veiled. The ears of wheat, if they are shown, are usually depicted as streaming out of the bull’s mortal wound (in the place of blood–the allusion to fertility can hardly be made clearer). The wheat is linked to the star, Spica, in the constellation of Virgo. The lion-headed figure is on a smaller scale than the other images; this most likely indicates that it represents a mortal being as opposed to a Deity. Its correspondence, of course, is the constellation of Leo.
Here’s a summary of the images of the Tauroctony and their astronomical correspondences:
|Mithras / Cautes & Cautopates||Orion|
|The dog||Canis Minor|
|Ears of Wheat||Spica (Virgo)|
Clearly, these images were not thrown into the Tauroctony for arbitrary or whimsical aesthetic purposes. These points in the sky showed a path by which the individual might join his God in the permanent communion of the Sacred Meal. In Roman and Syrian areas, the successive stages along this path were marked by the individual’s efforts to attain initiation into the various degrees [i.e., salvation by good works]. In the Danube region, this process took on more the character of an epiphany, the individual undergoing a signal change as he achieved a state of grace [i.e., salvation by faith alone]. (Cooper, p.76)
It is to the degrees of this Roman mystery religion that we now turn.
The Degrees of Initiation
The degrees were seven in number: Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Bride), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Messenger of the Sun, or Sun-Runner), and Pater (Father). It’s a tightly organized system of correspondences, in which each degree was associated with certain virtues, principles, badges of office, a planet, and a part of the central icon, the Tauroctony, which was the core of the religion.*
In all religions, the spiritual principle is taught through a compound of spirituality and another virtue. In the case of Christianity, it was compassion; in the case of Mithrasism, it was valor. Thus each degree was linked through its attributes to a symbol of duty. Together, these attributes and duties provide a reasonably clear picture of the spiritual teaching of each degree (Cooper, p.116).
Following initiation, this was what the prospective member became. The degree corresponded to the planet Mercury: Nama Coracibus tutela Mercurii, or “Holy Raven of Mercury’s tutelage.” Recall that Mercury is the psychopompos, so death figures prominently in the symbolism of this degree. In the Tauroctony, the raven bears the message to Mithras that the bull must die. But as an initiate, the Corax himself had to be guided symbolically through the process normally reserved for the dead: have impurities removed from his soul in order to advance. The Corax was the raw material, the original ore that had to be refined to be of use. In Mithrasism, purification for this initiate came through service to the higher ranking members during the Sacred Meal. This was a lowly status.
The word nymphus means not only “bride,” but “secret” as well. This degree was linked to the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which was very popular in the second century B.C.E. and brought to life in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, the classic tale of self-discovery and introspection.
By the light of teachings (the lamp), the Nymphus would look into himself (the mirror), and see himself as he really was rather than how he wished to be seen (the veil). In this process of self-discovery, the major virtue attributed to brides was emphasized: patience in the pursuit of self-understanding (Cooper, p.121). The planet for this degree is Venus; the constellation is Spica, the wheat ear held by Virgo.
This is not a surprising degree given the recruitment of so many soldiers in the religion. In some sense, all Mithras’ followers were seen as soldiers battling evil, but this degree was special. It was a more active role than the previous two degrees: the acquisition of a new personality after the purification process of Corax and the self-discovery of Nymphus. The Miles served as a guard, protecting the sanctity of the Mithraeum and the secrets of its theology. Its virtues were sacrifice and dedication. The planet for this degree is Mars.
This is the adept degree, when one reaches the inner circle of the religion. Its symbol was fire, which burned away one’s mortal (flawed) self. The Leo had his hands washed with honey; his tongue was anointed with it as well: he would have to keep his hands clean for ever after, and always speak the truth. Honey, associated with bees, also had connotations with the transmigration of souls; and the sistrum the Leo played mimicked the sound of bees buzzing, of souls incarnating. The thunderbolt was a symbol of rulership. From these factors it can be deduced that the Leo must have been viewed as a person of considerable occult skill: the ladder of salvation between Cancer and Capricorn, birth and rebirth, was laid open to him. Images of Leos often depict a lion-headed figure entwined with a serpent, symbolizing the power over which the adept gained control.
On reaching this stage, the adept acquired a power of salvation not available to any lower degree, a power achieved by harnessing the nabarze, or holy energy, of life, salvation, and goodness that Mithras released when He slew the bull (Cooper, pp.127-128). The planet of this degree is Jupiter.
The name of this degree is fascinating: it is the name of Perses, the son of Perseus, as well as the Roman word for “Persian.” With this degree the administrative functions of Mithrasism become evident, for Perses was known as “the keeper of the fruits,” which may be a reference to the office of treasurer. As the planet for this degree is the Moon, however, there are certainly esoteric influences at play as well. As with the Leo, the Perses was anointed with honey: Honey was associated with the Moon, as were both bulls and bees. In the ancient world, bees were said to come from the hides of dead bulls, and were the symbols of the souls of people yet to be incarnated. The incarnated, in birth, passed through the doorway of the Tropic of Cancer, the zodiacal sign ruled by the Moon (Cooper, p.132).
“Keeper of the fruits” may also refer to the cycle of planting and harvesting by the Moon; the Perses carried a sickle. The diversity of the world’s plants was thought to derive from the bull’s spilled blood. Thus the miracle of the slaying of the bull is ongoing; creation is not a one-time event. Esoterically speaking, the fruits the Perses keeps represents the souls of the members of the community; his duty, symbolized by the honey, is the preservation of those souls.
In the administrative duties of the three top degrees, the Heliodromus functions as the deputy of the Pater. But symbolically, he is the representative of the Sun God in this world and at the Sacred Meal held in the Mithraeum. The interaction between the Sol and Mithras is interesting in that Sol does not appear to be vanquished in any way through Mithras’ rise to the top, as it were; Sol is deferential but not reduced in honor.
As head of the Mithraeum, the Pater governed sacerdotal, as well as administrative, abilities. He was responsible for the admission and initiation of new members. He was a repository of magical training, particularly astrology. He was the high priest (summus pontifex), chosen by his fellow Paters (consacranei syndexi) according to the law (pater nominus) to be the defender (defensor) of the mysteries. His titles of “most pious” (pientissimus) and “dignified” (dignissimus) indicate the high moral caliber which he must inherently possess. He functioned as Mithras’ deputy on earth, particularly during the enactment of the Sacred Meal. The Pater’s planet is Saturn, who heralds the change of ages.
Mithrasmas: The Birth of Mithras
Nama Mithras, Deus genitor rupe natus
“Holy Mithras, the God born from the rock”
On December 25–the date of the Winter Solstice in remote antiquity–Mithras was born from stone. Why stone? Iranian polytheists saw the sky as having been made of stone by the gods; Zarathustra said it was made of stone by Ahura Mazda. The heavens were meant to be immutable. Recall that Mithraeums were located underground and were meant to evoke caves, which in turn evoked the cosmos.
Mithras is depicted as being born naked, save for His trademark red Phrygian cap, with a number of objects in His hands: in His right hand is the dagger with which He will slay the bull (His action is one of destiny); in his left He may hold either a torch (He illuminates the world), ears of grain (fertility, which is also linked to the bull), and a miniature globe (to indicate His dominance over the world).
Mithrasmas was celebrated with the exchange of presents (this is borrowed from the traditional Roman holiday of Saturnalia) and the decoration of a pine tree with candles. Nativity plays also appear to have been performed by the members of the faith. The nave of the Mithraeum (where the cave ceiling denoted the cosmos) provided the set. Members of the community took the role of shepherds and other Deities, who were attracted by the sacred light and fire that emanates either from Mithras or from the rock (a reference to the discovery of flint?). A Divine Messenger, most likely Mercury, appears to tell the shepherds (sheep were the only animals present, as cattle had not yet been domesticated) the significance of what is happening.
The shepherds arrive at the point at which Mithras’ birth is either just complete or almost completed. Cautes and Cautopates may have acted as midwives. Other Deities may be present, and it is Saturn who may have passed on His dagger to Mithras (the changing of the ages). This was the inauguration of hope celebrated by the community, the beginning of the redemption of souls, the promise of victory:
Ave, Mitras! Ave, Deus!
Sol Invictus! Tu omnia!
* * * * * * * *
Footnote: *Roman Mithrasism does an esoteric rearrangement of the order of the planets for reasons that are not quite clear. The typical pattern of Hermetica is to arrange the planets as: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and–if used–the fixed stars. In Mithrasism, the order is: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Moon, Sun, and Saturn. The Moon and Sun are given a new place in the order.
Cooper, D. Jason. Mithras: Mysteries and Initiation Rediscovered. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1996.
Recommended Materials on the Web
The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras by David Ulansey.
A fabulous essay from one of the leading historians writing about Mithras today.
- Ahura Mazda
- Avestan Hymn to Mithra
- Cautes and Cautopates
- comparative religious studies
- early Christianity
- Milky Way
- Mystery Religions
- Rig Veda
- Roman Empire
- Roman religion
- Sol Invictus
- transmigration of souls
- Winter Solstice