This article has been tagged since June 2007. This article is about the Hellenistic and Roman god. For other divine entities with related names, see the general article Mitra. For the butterfly genus, see Mithras (butterfly).
Mithras was the central god of Mithraism, a syncretic Hellenistic mystery religion of male initiates that developed in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC and was practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.
The Romanized Greek Plutarch says that in 67 BC a large band of pirates in Cilicia — on the southeast coast of Anatolia — were practicing “secret rites” of Mithras. It has been suggested that much of the myth and symbolism of Mithraism was influential on the early Christian Church.
The name Mithras is the Greek nominative form of Mithra, the Zoroastrian yazata that serves as mediator between Ahura Mazda (highest divinity) and the earth, the guarantor of human contracts, although in Mithraism much was added to the original elements of Mitra. However, some of the attributes of Roman Mithras may have been taken from other Eastern cults: for example, the Mithraist emphasis on astrology strongly suggests syncretism with star-oriented Mesopotamian or Anatolian religions. At least some of this synthesis of beliefs may have already been underway by the time the cult was adopted in the West. When Mithraism was introduced by Roman legions at Dura-Europos after 168 AD, the god assumed his familiar Hellenistic iconic formula (illustration above right). Compare the very similar Enkidu seal.
The mythology surrounding Mithras is not easily reassembled from the enigmatic and complicated iconography. Indeed the dedicatory inscription on a 2nd-3rd century tauroctony discovered in a Mithraeum at Ostia in the 1790s refers to the “incomprehensible deity”: INDEPREHENSIVILIS DEI . Apparently the cult of Mithras did not depend, as Christianity did, on the interpretation of revealed texts considered to be divinely inspired, and the textual references are those of Christians, who mention Mithras to deplore him, and neo-Platonists who interpreted Mithraic symbols within their own world-schemes.
However, we do have a number of dedications from followers of Mithras (mainly addressed to invictus, unconquerable, Mithras), mainly from Roman Britain, the Rhine and Danube area and Italy. These suggest that a large number of his worshippers were low-ranking soldiers (there are very few examples of offerings from higher-ranking soldiers and those may have just been to encourage their men) and slaves, perhaps because a religion with a strict but straight-forward hierarchy allowed them the power they lacked in their everyday lives. Later in the third century Mithraism filtered through to the upper classes and it was even used as a mid-ground argument against Christianity.
It is difficult for scholars to reconstruct the daily workings and beliefs of Mithraism, as the rituals were highly secret and limited to initiated men only. 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, followed by an English translation in 1903.
Members would ascend through seven grades of initiation, each aligned with a symbol, and a god:
- Corax: The Raven with Mercury
- Nymphus: The Bridegroom with Venus
- Miles: The Soldier with Mars
- Leo: The Lion with Jupiter
- Perses: The Persian with the Moon
- Heliodromus: The Runner of the Sun or the Messenger with the Sun
- Pater: The Father with Saturn
Archeological evidence suggests that initiations involved three ordeals that the initiate had to endure: heat, cold, and hunger. Since Father was the highest rank it is obviously one mentioned most frequently in inscriptions, but becoming a Lion was also seen to be very important and was regarded as a watershed in one’s authority and responsibility within the cult. Through their association with Jupiter, Lions were aligned with fire and so it would have been inappropriate for them to have been cleansed at their initiation with water. Instead honey was used; it was also put on their tongue to symbolise their pure and cleansing words.
Tauroctony, Roman, 3rd century (Museo Archaeologico, Palermo)
Worship took place in a temple, or “mithraeum”, an artificial cave probably constructed to resemble the place of Mithras’s birth. Although some of these temples were built specifically for the purpose, most of them were rooms inside larger structures, which had a different purpose, such as a private home or a bathhouse.
See also Temple of Mithras, London
- In the Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying series, Mithras is an ancient Ventrue who rules as the Prince of London.
- In the computer game Rome: Total War (Barbarian Invasion Expansion Pack), Mithras is a possible pagan entity to be worshipped throughout the Roman Empire.
- In the computer game Sacrifice, Mithras is The Prophet/Narrator.
- In the PlayStation 2 game Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, Mithra is an enemy that can be recruited to fight on your side once he has been defeated. Mithra is depicted as a red humanoid with a lion’s head and a serpent wrapped around his legs. In reality, this representation is more likely that of Deus Arimanius, the Roman version of the Zoroastrian Ahriman, the source of all evil.
- In the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Mithras is mentioned in passing as the god who originally had the December 25th birthday, before it was appropriated by some Christians. This notion is held due to the testimony of Plutarch, which presents the December 25th birthday as originating in the 1st century BC. The notion of a December 25 birthday for Mithras is also mentioned in the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code, as well as the Rosemary Sutcliff novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.
- In the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There by Brian Flemming, Mithras is referenced as one of the mythic “savior figures” on which the story of Jesus was based.
- A secret society of Mithras worshippers in modern times is a major part in the David Morrell thriller “The covenant of the flame”