Mithras in the Roman Empire
"Let us suppose that in modern Europe the faithful had
deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma, to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt the maxims of the Shinto; let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits should all be preaching fatalism and predestination, ancestor-worship and devotion to a deified sovereign, pessimism and deliverance through annihilation - a confusion in which all those priests should erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein. Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine." Franz Cumont The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism At a time when Christianity was only one of several dozen foreign Eastern cults struggling for recognition in Rome, the religious dualism and dogmatic moral teaching of Mithraism set it apart from other sects, creating a stability previously unknown in Roman paganism. Early Roman worshippers imagined themselves to be keepers of ancient wisdom from the far east, and invincible heroes of the faith, ceaselessly fighting the powers of corruption. Mithraism quickly gained prominence and remained the most important pagan religion until the end of the fourth century, spreading Zoroastrian dualism throughout every province of the empire for three hundred years.
In those days, it was imperial policy to remove troops as
far as possible from their country of origin in order to
prevent local uprisings. A Roman soldier who, after several years of service in his native country had been promoted to the rank of centurion, was transferred to a foreign station where he was later assigned to a new garrison. This way, the entire body of centurions of any one legion constituted a microcosm of the empire. The vast extent of the Roman colonies formed links between Persia and the Mediterranean and caused the diffusion of the Mithraic religion into the Roman world. Mithraism became a military religion under the Romans. The many dangers to which the Roman soldiers were exposed caused them to seek the protection of the gods of their foreign comrades in order to obtain success
in battle or a happier life through death. The soldiers
adopted the Mithraic faith for its emphasis on victory,
strength, and security in the next world. Temples and
shrines were dedicated to Mithras across the empire.
In 67 B.C., the first congregation of Mithras-worshipping
soldiers existed in Rome under the command of General
Pompey. From 67 to 70 A.D.,the legio XV Apollinaris,
or Fifteenth Apollonian Legion, took part in suppressing
the uprising of the Jews in Palestine. After sacking and
burning the Second Temple in Jerusalem and capturing
the infamous Ark of the Covenant, this legion accompanied Emperor Titus to Alexandria, where they were joined by new recruits from Cappadocia (Turkey) to replace casualties suffered in their victorious campaigns.
After their transportation to the Danube with the veteran legionnaires, they offered sacrifices to Mithras in a
semicircular grotto that they consecrated to him on the
banks of the river. Soon, this first temple was no longer
adequate and a second one was built adjoining a temple of Jupiter. As a municipality developed alongside the camp and the conversions to Mithraism continued to multiply, a third and much larger Mithraeum was erected towards the beginning of the second century. This temple was later enlarged by Diocletian, Emperor from 284-305 A.D. Diocletian rededicated this sanctuary to Mithras, giving him the title "The Protector of the Empire". Five Mithraeums were found in Great Britain, where only
three Roman legions were stationed. Remains were
discovered in London near St. Paul's Cathedral
(a site which I visited in July 1992), in Segontium in Wales, and three were found along Hadrian's Wall in Northern England. Mithraism also reached Northern Africa by Roman military recruits from abroad. By the second
century, the worship of Mithras had spread throughout
Germany due to the powerful army that defended this
territory. The greatest number of Mithraeums in the
western world were discovered in Germany. An inscription has been found of a centurion's dedication to Mithras dating back to the year 148 A.D. One of the most famous Mithraic bas-reliefs, showing twelve scenes from the life of the god, was discovered in Neuenheim, Germany in 1838. When Commodus (Emperor from 180-192 A.D.) was initiated into the Mithraic religion, there began an era of strong support of Mithraism that included emperors such as Aurelian, Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate, who called Mithras "the guide of the souls". All of these emperors took the Mithraic titles of 'Pius', 'Felix', and 'Invictus' (devout, blessed, and invincible). From this point on, Roman authority legitimized their rule by divine right, as opposed to heredity or vote of the Senate. The Babylonian astrological influence within Mithraism established a solar henotheism as the leading religion at Rome. In 218 the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (placed upon the throne at age 14) attempted to elevate his god, the Baal of Emesa to the rank of supreme divinity of the empire by subordinating the entire ancient pantheon. Heliogabalus was soon assassinated
for his aspiration of a solar henotheism, but half a century
later his attempt inspired emperor Aurelian to initiate the
worship of the Sol invictus. Worshipped in an elaborate
temple, magnificent plays were held in honour of this deity
every fourth year. Sol invictus was also elevated to the
supreme rank in the divine hierarchy, and became the special protector of the emperors and the empire. Many Mithraic reliefs showed scenes of Mithras and Sol sharing a banquet over a table draped with the skin of the bull.
Soon after, the title of Sol invictus was transferred to
Mithras. The Roman emperors formally announced their
alliance with the sun and emphasized their likeness to
Mithras, god of its divine light. Mithras was also
unified with the sun-god Helios, and became known
as 'The Great God Helios-Mithras'. Emperor Nero adopted the radiating crown as the symbol of his sovereignty to exemplify the splendour of the rays of the sun, and to show that he was an incarnation of Mithras. He was initiated into the Mithraic religion by the Persian Magi brought to Rome by the King of Armenia. Emperors from that time onwards proclaimed themselves destined to the throne by virtue of having been born with the divine ruling power of the sun.
The Rites of Mithraic Initiation
Upon enlistment, the first act of a Roman soldier was to
pledge obedience and devotion to the emperor. Absolute
loyalty to authority and to fellow soldiers was the cardinal
virtue, and the Mithraic religion became the ultimate vehicle for this fraternal obedience. The Mithras worshippers compared the practice of their religion to their military service. All of the initiates considered themselves sons of the same father owing to one another a brother's affection. Mithras was a chaste god, and his worshippers were taught reverence for celibacy (a convenient trait for soldiers to maintain). The spirit of camaraderie (and celibacy) was to be continued in the Roman Empire by the Christian belief in neighborly love and universal charity. However, the worshippers of Mithras did not lose themselves in a contemplative mysticism like the followers of other near-eastern sects. Their morality particularly encouraged action, and during a period of war and confusion, they found stimulation, comfort and support in its tenets. In their eyes
of the Roman soldiers, resistance to evil deeds and immoral actions became just as valued as victory in glorious military exploits. They would fight the powers of evil in accordance with the ideals of Zoroastrian dualism, in which life was conceived as a struggle against evil spirits. By supplying a new conception of the world, Mithraism gave new meaning to life by determining the worshipper's beliefs concerning life after death. The struggle between good and evil was extended into the afterworld, where Mithras ensured the protection of his followers from the powers of darkness. It was believed that Mithras would judge the souls of the dead and lead the righteous into the heavenly regions where Ahura-Mazda reigned in eternal light. Mithraism brought the assurance that reverence would be rewarded with immortality.
Mithraism was an archetypal mystery cult and secret
society. Like the rites of Demeter, Orpheus, and Dionysus, the Mithraic rituals admitted candidates by secret ceremonies, the meaning of which was known only to the initiated. Like all other institutionalized initiation rites of the past and present, this mystery cult allowed the initiates to be controlled and put under the command of their leaders. Preceding initiation into the Mithraic fold, the neophyte had to prove his courage and devotion by swimming across a rough river, descending a sharp cliff, or jumping through flames with his hands bound and eyes blindfolded. The initiate was also taught the secret Mithraic password, which he was to use to identify himself to other members, and which he was to repeat to himself frequently as a personal mantra. Mithraic worshippers believed that the human soul descended into the world at birth. The goal of their religious quest was to achieve the soul's ascent out of the world again by gaining passage through seven heavenly gates, corresponding to seven grades of initiation. Therefore, being promoted to a higher rank in the religion was believed to correspond to a heavenly journey of the soul. Promotion was obtained through submission to religious authority (kneeling), casting off the old life (nakedness), and liberation from bondage through the mysteries.
The process of Mithraic initiation required the symbolic
climbing of a ceremonial ladder with seven rungs, each
made of a different metal to symbolize the seven known
celestial bodies. By symbolically ascending this ceremonial ladder through successive initiations, the neophyte could proceed through the seven levels of heaven. The seven grades of Mithraism, were: Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Male Bride), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Peres (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner), and Pater (Father); each respective grade protected by Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn. The lowest degree of initiation into the grade of Corax symbolized the death of a new member, from which he would arise reborn as a new man. This represented the end of his life as an unbeliever, and cancelled previous allegiances to the other unacceptable beliefs. The title Corax (Raven) originated with the Zoroastrian custom of exposing the dead on funeral towers to be eaten by carrion birds, a custom continued today by the Parsis of India, the descendants of the Persian followers of Zarathustra. Further initiation involved the clashing of cymbals, beating of drums, and the unveiling of a statue of Mithras. The initiate drank wine from the cymbal to recognize it as the source of ritual ecstasy. Next, he ate a small morsel of bread placed on a drum, to signify his acceptance of Mithras as the source of his food. This bread had been exposed to the rays of the sun, so by eating the bread the worshipper was partaking of the divine essence of the sun itself. The initiate would also offer a loaf of bread and cup of water to the statue of Mithras. When a neophyte reached the degree of Miles (soldier), he was offered a crown, which he had to reject with the saying "Only Mithras is my crown". The indelible mark of a cross, symbol of the sun, was then
branded on his forehead with a hot iron to symbolize his
ownership by the deity, and he would renounce the social
custom of wearing a wreath. From then on, the neophyte
belonged to the sacred militia of 'The Invincible
God Mithras'. All family ties were severed and only
fellow initiates were to be considered brothers.
Worshippers used caves and grottos as temples wherever possible, or at least gave temples the internal appearance of caves or of being subterranean by building steps leading down to the entrance. They took part in masquerading as animals, such as ravens and lions, and inserted passages into their ritual chants that were devoid of any literal meaning.
All of these rites that characterized Roman Mithraism
originated in ancient prehistoric ceremonies.
During the rituals, the evolution of the universe and the
destiny of mankind was explained. The service consisted
chiefly of contemplatingthe Mithraic symbolism, praying
while knelt before benches, and chanting hymns to the
accompaniment of flutes. Hymns were sung describing the voyage of Mithras' horse-drawn chariot across the sky.
Invokers and worshippers of Mithras prayed, "Abide with
me in my soul. Leave me not [so] that I may be initiated
and that the Holy Spirit may breathe within me." Animal
sacrifices, mostly of birds, were also conducted in the
Mithraeums. The Mithraic clergy's duty was to maintain
the perpetual holy fire on the altar, invoke the planet of
the day, offer the sacrifices for the disciples, and preside
at initiations. The Mithraic priests were known as Patres
Sacrorum, or Fathers of the Sacred Mysteries.
They were mystically designated with the titles
Leo and Hierocorax, and presided over the priestly
festivals of Leontica (the festival of lions), Coracica
(the festival of ravens), and Hierocoracica (the festival of
sacred ravens). The great festival of the Mithraic
calendar was held on December the 25th, and the 16th
of every month was kept holy to Mithras. The first day
of the week was dedicated to the sun, to whom prayers
were recited in the morning, noon, and evening.
Services were held on Sundays, in which bells were
sounded and praises were offered to Mithras. On great
occasions, the 'soldiers of Mithras' took part in the
sacrament of bread and wine as sacred bulls were sacrificed.
While Mithras was worshipped almost exclusively by men,
most of the wives and daughters of the Mithraists took
part in the worship of Magna Mater, Ma-Bellona,
Anahita, Cybele, and Artemis. These goddess religions
practiced a regeneration ritual known as the
Taurobolium, or bull sacrifice, in which the blood of the
slaughtered animal was allowed to fall down upon the
initiate, who would be lying, completely drenched in a pit
below. As a result of their association with practitioners of
this rite, Mithraists soon adopted the Taurobolium ritual
as their own. This baptism of blood became a renewal
of the human soul, as opposed to mere physical strength.
Mithraic baptism wiped out moral faults; the purity aimed
at had become spiritual. The descent into the pit was
regarded as symbolic burial, from which the initiate would
emerge reborn, purified of all his crimes and regarded as
the equal of a god. Those who made it through the
Taurobolium were revered by their brethren, and accepted
in the fold of Mithraism. "The taurobolium had become
a means of obtaining a new and eternal life; the
ritualistic ablutions were no longer external and material
acts, but were supposed to cleanse the soul of its
impurities and to restore its original innocence; the
sacred repasts imparted an intimate virtue to the soul
and furnished sustenance to the spiritual life."
(Franz Cumont Les Mystères de Mithra)
The bull has been exalted throughout the ancient world
for its strength and vigour. Greek myths told of the
Minotaur, a half-man half-bull monster who lived in the
Labyrinth beneath Crete, and took an annual sacrifice of
six young men and six maidens before being slain by the
hero Theseus. Minoan artwork depicted nimble acrobats leaping bravely over the backs of bulls. The altar in front of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem was adorned with bull horns believed to be endowed with magical powers. The bull was also one of the four tetramorphs, the symbols later associated with the four gospels. The mystique of this powerful animal still survives today in the ritualistic bull-fighting of Spain and Mexico, and in the rodeo bull-riding of the U.S. The bull was an obvious representation of masculinity by nature of its size, strength, and sexual power. At the same time, the bull symbolized lunar forces by virtue of its horns and earthly forces by virtue of its powerful root to the ground.
The ritual sacrifice of the bull symbolized the penetration
of the feminine principle by the masculine. The slaying of
the bull represented the victory of man's spiritual nature
over his animality; parallel to the symbolic images of
Marduk slaying Tiamut, Gilgamesh killing Humbaba,
Michael subduing Satan, St. George slaying the dragon,
the Centurion piercing Christ's side, Lewis Carroll's
"beamish boy" slaying the Jabberwocky, and Sigourney
Weaver slaying the Alien.
According to the archetypal hero myth recited in Roman
Mithraic rituals, the infant Mithras formed an alliance with
the sun and set off to kill the bull, the first living creature
ever created. While the bull was grazing in a pasture,
Mithras seized it by the horns and dragged it into a cave.
The bull soon escaped, but was recaptured when Mithras
was given the command by the raven, messenger of the sun, to slay the bull. With the help of his dog, Mithras succeeded in overtaking the bull and dragging it again in the cave. Then, seizing it by the nostrils, he plunged deep into its flank with his knife. As the bull died, the world came into being and time was born. From the body of the slain beast sprang forth all the herbs and plants that cover the earth. From the spinal cord of the animal sprang wheat to produce bread, and from the blood came the vine to produce wine. The shedding of the sacrificial blood brought great blessings to the world, which Ahriman tried to prevent. The struggle between good and evil which at that moment first began was to continue until the end of time. "This ingenious fable carries us back to the very beginnings of civilization. It could never have risen save among a people of shepherds and hunters with whom cattle, the source of all wealth, had become an object of religious veneration" ( Franz Cumont Les Mystères de Mithra)