Mithraism and Christianity. Part II

Part 2

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.

The Taurobolium

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)