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The Mithraic Mysteries or Mysteries of Mithras (also Mithraism) was a mystery religion which became popular among the military in the Roman Empire, from the 1st to 4th centuries AD. Information on the cult is based mainly on interpretations of monuments. These depict Mithras as born from a rock and sacrificing a bull. His worshippers had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, with ritual meals. They met in underground temples. Little else is known for certain.

Summary of the cult myth

Mithras is born from a rock. He is depicted in his temples slaying a bull in the tauroctony (see section below). Little is known about the beliefs associated with this. The ancient histories of the cult by Euboulos and Pallas have perished. The name of the god was certainly given as Mithras (with an 's') in Latin monuments, although Mithra may have been used in Greek.

History and development

Beginnings

In antiquity, texts refer to "the mysteries of Mithras", and to its adherents, as "the mysteries of the Persians." But there is great dispute about whether there is really any link with Persia, and its origins are quite obscure.

The mysteries of Mithras were not practiced until the 1st century AD. The unique underground temples or Mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the first century AD.

Earliest cult locations

The attested locations of the cult in the earliest phase (c. 80–120 AD) are as follows:

Mithraea datable from pottery
  • Nida/Heddemheim III (Germania Sup.)
  • Mogontiacum (Germania Sup.)
  • Pons Aeni (Noricum)
  • Caesarea (Judaea)
Datable dedications
  • Nida/Heddernheim I (Germania Sup.) (CIMRM 1091/2, 1098)
  • Carnuntum III (Pannonia Sup.) (CIMRM 1718)
  • Novae (Moesia Inf.) (CIMRM 2268/9)
  • Oescus(Moesia Inf.)(CIMRM 2250)
  • Rome(CIMRM 362, 593/4)
  • Aezanitis (NW Phrygia) (CIMRM 23)
Datable literary reference
  • Rome (Statius, Theb. 1.719-20)


Earliest archaeology

The earliest Mithraic monument showing Mithras slaying the bull is thought to be CIMRM 593. This is a depiction of Mithras killing the bull, found in Rome. There is no date, but the inscription tells us that it was dedicated by a certain Alcimus, steward of T. Claudius Livianus. Vermaseren and Gordon believe that this Livianus is a certain Livianus who was commander of the Praetorian guard in 101 AD, which would give an earliest date of 98-99 AD.

An altar or block from near SS. Pietro e Marcellino on the Esquiline in Rome was inscribed with a bilingual inscription by an Imperial freedman named T. Flavius Hyginus, probably between 80-100 AD. It is dedicated to Sol Invictus Mithras.

CIMRM 2268 is a broken base or altar from Novae/Steklen in Moesia Inferior, dated 100 AD, showing Cautes and Cautopates.

Other early archaeology includes the Greek inscription from Venosia by Sagaris actor probably from 100–150 AD; the Sidon cippus dedicated by Theodotus priest of Mithras to Asclepius, 140-141 AD; and the earliest military inscription, by C. Sacidius Barbarus, centurion of XV Apollinaris, from the bank of the Danube at Carnuntum, probably before 114 AD. . p.150

The last is the earliest archaeological evidence outside Rome for the Roman worship of Mithras, a record of Roman soldiers who came from the military garrison at Carnuntummarker. The earliest dateable Mithraeum outside Rome dates from 148 AD. The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima is the only one in Palestine and the date is inferred.

Vermaseren notes that no Mithraic monument can be certainly dated earlier than the end of the first century AD.

Earliest literary references

The first surviving ancient author to mention Mithras is Statius ca. 80 AD, who makes an enigmatic reference, possibly to the tauroctony.

Possible origins of the mysteries of Mithras



Plutarch

The Greek biographer Plutarch (46 - 127) was convinced that the pirates of Cilicia, the coastal province in the southeast of Anatoliamarker, were the origin of the Mithraic rituals that were being practiced in the Rome of his day: "They likewise offered strange sacrifices; those of Olympus I mean; and they celebrated certain secret mysteries, among which those of Mithras continue to this day, being originally instituted by them." ( Life of Pompey 24). The 4th century commentary on Vergil by Servius says that Pompey settled some of these pirates in Calabria. But whether any of this relates to the origins of the mysteries is unclear.

Porphyry

According to 3-4th century AD philosopher Porphyry, Mithraists considered that their cult was founded by Zoroaster. But Porphyry is writing close to the demise of the cult, and modern scholar Robert Turcan has challenged the idea that Porphyry's statements about Mithraism are accurate. His case is that far from representing what Mithraists believed, they are merely representations by the neo-platonists of what it suited them in the late 4th century to read into the mysteries. Merkelbach and Beck believe that Porphyry's work "is in fact thoroughly coloured with the doctrines of the Mysteries."

Cumont's hypothesis

Scholarship on Mithras begins with Franz Cumont, who published a two volume collection of source texts and images of monuments in French in 1894–1900. Cumont's hypothesis, as the author summarizes it in the first 32 pages of his book, was that the Roman religion was "the Roman form of Mazdaism" , the Persian state religion, disseminated from the East.

Cumont's theories were examined and largely rejected at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies held in 1971. John Hinnells was unwilling to reject entirely the idea of Iranian origin, but wrote: "we must now conclude that his reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography." He discussed Cumont's reconstruction of the bull-slaying scene and stated "that the portrayal of Mithras given by Cumont is not merely unsupported by Iranian texts but is actually in serious conflict with known Iranian theology." Another paper by R. L. Gordon showed that Cumont severely distorted the available evidence by forcing the material to conform to his predetermined model of Zoroastrian origins. Gordon suggested that the theory of Persian origins was completely invalid and that the Mithraic mysteries in the West was an entirely new creation.

Boyce states that "no satisfactory evidence has yet been adduced to show that, before Zoroaster, the concept of a supreme god existed among the Iranians, or that among them Mithra - or any other divinity - ever enjoyed a separate cult of his or her own outside either their ancient or their Zoroastrian pantheons."

Beck tells us that since the 1970s scholars have generally rejected Cumont, but adds that recent theories about how Zoroastrianism was during the period BC now makes some new form of Cumont's east-west transfer possible. "Apart from the name of the god himself, in other words, Mithraism seems to have developed largely in and is, therefore, best understood from the context of Roman culture."

Modern theories

Beck believes that the cult was created in Rome, by a single founder who had some knowledge of both Greek and Oriental religion, but suggests that some of the ideas used may have passed through the Hellenistic kingdoms: "Mithras — moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god, Helios, ... was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I, king of the small, but prosperous "buffer" state of Commagene, in the mid first century BC.

Merkelbach suggests that its mysteries were essentially created by a single individual of genius and created in a specific place, the city of Rome, by someone from an eastern province or border state who knew the Iranian myths in detail, which he wove into his new grades of initiation; but that he must have been Greek and Greek-speaking because he incorporated elements of Greek platonism into it. The myths, he suggests, were probably created in the milieu of the imperial bureaucracy, and for its members. Clauss tends to agree. Beck calls this "the most likely scenario" and states "Till now, Mithraism has generally been treated as if it somehow evolved Topsy-like from its Iranian precursor -- a most implausible scenario once it is stated explicitly."

Archaeologist Lewis M. Hopfe notes that there are only three Mithraea in Roman Syria, in contrast to further west. He writes: "archaeology indicates that Roman Mithraism had its epicenter in Rome... the fully developed religion known as Mithraism seems to have begun in Rome and been carried to Syria by soldiers and merchants."

Taking a different view from most modern scholars, Ulansey argues that the Mithraic mysteries began in the Greco-Roman world as a religious response to the discovery by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes—a discovery that amounted to discovering that the entire cosmos was moving in a hitherto unknown way. This new cosmic motion, he suggests, was seen by the founders of Mithraism as indicating the existence of a powerful new god capable of shifting the cosmic spheres and thereby controlling the universe.

Ware asserted that the Romans who founded the cult borrowed the name "Mithras" from Avestan Mithra,.

Later History

The first important expansion of the mysteries in the Empire seems to have happened quite quickly, late in the reign of Antoninus Pius and under Marcus Aurelius. By this time all the key elements of the mysteries were in place.

Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, spreading at an "astonishing" rate at the same period when Sol Invictus became part of the state cult.. At this period a certain Pallas devoted a monograph to Mithras, and a little later Euboulus wrote a History of Mithras, although both works are now lost. According to the possibly spurious fourth century Historia Augusta, the emperor Commodus participated in its mysteries. But it never became one of the state cults.

The end of Mithraism

It is difficult to trace when the cult of Mithras came to an end. Beck states that "Quite early in the [fourth] century the religion was as good as dead throughout the empire." . Inscriptions from the fourth century are few. There is evidence of Mithraea destroyed, or which fell into ruin, which is the only evidence available. There is virtually no evidence for the continuance of the cult of Mithras into the fifth century. For instance votive coins deposited by worshippers over centuries at the Mithraeum at Pons Sarravi (Sarrebourg) in Gallia Belgica run from Gallienus (253-68) and end with Theodosius I (379-395). These were scattered over the floor when the Mithraeum was destroyed. It cannot be shown that any Mithraeum continued in use in the fifth century. The coin series in all Mithraea end at the end of the fourth century at the latest. The cult disappeared earlier than that of Isis. Isis was still remembered in the middle ages as a pagan deity, but Mithras was already forgotten in late antiquity.

Cumont stated in the English edition of his book that Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges into the fifth century, but the reference was only given in the French text, and was to the date of the coins in the Mithraeum at Pons Sarravi, none of which are in fact fifth century.

Rituals and worship

Little is known about the beliefs of the cult of Mithras. Modern accounts rely primarily on modern interpretation of the reliefs.

No Mithraic scripture or first-hand account of its highly secret rituals survives, with the possible exception of a liturgy recorded in a 4th century papyrus, which may not be Mithraic at all.

Mithraic beliefs were not internally consistent and monolithic, but rather, varied from location to location.

The mithraeum



Temples of Mithras were underground, and very distinctive. These are known as Mithraea, and are common in the empire. All are very small; the cult preferred to create a new centre rather than expand an existing one. The Mithraeum represented the cave in which Mithras carried and then killed the bull. In Italy inscriptions usually call it a spelaeum; outside Italy it is referred to as templum.

Degrees of initiation

There were seven grades of initiation into the mysteries of Mithras, which are listed by St. Jerome. In ascending order of importance these were:
  • Corax (raven)
  • Nymphus (bridegroom)
  • Miles (soldier)
  • Leo (lion)
  • Perses (Persian)
  • Heliodromus (sun-courier)
  • Pater (father)


A mosaic in the Ostia Mithraeum of Felicissimus depicts these grades, with foodstuffs which may be associated with ritual meals for each grade.

Admission into the community was completed with a handshake with the pater, just as Mithras and Sol shook hands. The initiates were thus referred to as syndexioi, those "united by the handshake". The term is used in an inscription by Proficentius and derided by Firmicus Maternus

Ritual imitations

Activities of the most prominent deities in Mithraic scenes, Sol and Mithras, were imitated in rituals by the two most senior officers in the cult's hierarchy, the Pater and the Heliodromus.. The initiates held a sacramental banquet, replicating the feast of Mithras and Sol.

Reliefs on a cup found in Mainzmarker, appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as led into a location where a Pater would be seated in the guise of Mithras with a drawn bow. Accompanying the initiate is a mystagogue, who explains the symbolism and theology to the initiate. The Rite is thought to re-enact what has come to be called the 'Water Miracle', in which Mithras fires a bolt into a rock, and from the rock now spouts water.

Roger Beck has hypothesized a third processional Mithraic ritual, based on the Mainz cup and Porphyrys. This so-called Procession of the Sun-Runner features the Heliodromus, escorted by two figures representing Cautes and Cautopates (see below) and preceded by an initiate of the grade Miles leading a ritual enactment of the solar journey around the mithraeum, which was inteded to represent the cosmos.

The cult was for men only. It has recently been suggested by one scholar that "women were involved with Mithraic groups in at least some locations of the empire."

Mithras and other gods

Syncretism was a feature of Roman paganism, and the cult of Mithras was part of this.

Mithras and Phanes

Orphic speculation influenced the cult of Mithras at times. In Orphism, Phanes emerged from the world egg at the beginning of time, bringing the universe into existence.

There is some literary evidence of the syncretism of Mithras and Phanes. A list of the eight elements of creation appears in Zenobius and Theon of Smyrna; most of the elements are the same, but in Zenobius the seventh element is 'Mithras', in Theon it is 'Phanes'..

A Greek inscription on a statue base from a Mithraeum in Rome reads "to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes". A relief from Vercovium (Housesteads) on Hadrian's Wallmarker shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring. Ulansey adds:

"The identification between Mithras and Phanes indicated by CIMRM 860 is also explicitly attested by an inscription found in Rome dedicated to 'Zeus-Helios-Mithras-Phanes' and another inscription dedicated to 'Helios-Mithras-Phanes'."


Another syncretistic relief is in Modenamarker. This shows Phanes coming from an egg with flames shooting out around him, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle.. Further references also exist.

Mithras Sol Invictus

Mithras is given the title "deus sol invictus" (unconquered sun god) in several inscriptions. The vagueness of the term invictus means that it was widely used. Mithras never became a state cult, however, unlike the official late Roman Sol Invictus cult.

Mithras and Helios/Sol

Although Mithras himself is Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, he and Sol appear in several scenes as separate persons, with the banquet scene (see below) being the most prominent example . Other scenes feature Mithras ascending behind Sol in the latter's chariot, the deities shaking hands and the two gods at an altar with pieces of meat on a spit or spits.. One peculiar scene shows Sol kneeling before Mithras, who holds an object, interpreted either as a Persian cap or the haunch of the bull, in his hand. .

Iconography

Much about Mithraism is only known from reliefs and sculptures. There have been many attempts to interpret this material.

The tauroctony

In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull; the so-called tauroctony.

The image may be a relief, or free-standing, and side details may be present or omitted. The centre-piece is Mithras, kneeling on the bull, holding it by the horns with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. As he does so, he looks towards the viewer. A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood. A scorpion seizes the bull's genitals. The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.

The event takes place in a cavern. Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. Top right is Luna, the moon, often depicted with a crescent moon.

Some depictions also have scenes to the left and the right, where Mithras is seen born from the rock, hunting the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him.

Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds' crooks instead..

Theories of the meaning of the tauroctony



Franz Cumont hypothesized that the imagery of the tauroctony was a Graeco-Roman representation of an event in Zoroastrian cosmogony described in a 9th century AD Zoroastrian text, the Bundahishn. In this text the evil spirit Ahriman (not Mithras) slays the primordial creature Gavaevodata which is represented as a bovine. Cumont speculated that a version of the myth must have existed in which Mithras, not Ahriman, killed the bovine. But Hinnells points out that no such variant of the myth is known, and that this is merely speculation: "In no known Iranian text [either Zoroastrian or otherwise] does Mithra slay a bull"

David Ulansey finds astronomical evidence from the mithraeum itself. He reminds us that the Platonic writer Porphyry wrote in the 3rd century AD that the cave-like temple Mithraea depicted "an image of the world" and that Zoroaster consecrated a cave resembling the world fabricated by Mithras The ceiling of the Caesarea Maritima Mithraeum retains traces of blue paint, which may mean the ceiling was painted to depict the sky and the stars..



Beck has given the following celestial anatomy of the Tauroctony:

Component of Tauroctony Celestial Counterpart
Bull Taurus
Dog Canis Minor, Canis Major
Snake Hydra, Serpens, Draco
Raven Corvus
Scorpion Scorpius
Wheat's ear (on bull's tail) Spica
Twins Cautes and Cautopates Gemini
Lion Leo
Crater Crater
Sol Sun
Luna Moon
Cave Universe


Several celestial identities for the Tauroctonous Mithras (TM) himself have been proposed. Beck summarizes them in the table below.

Scholar Identification
Bausani, A. (1979) TM associated with Leo, in that the tauroctony is a type of the ancient lion-bull (Leo-Taurus) combat motif.
Beck, R.L. (1994) TM = Sun in Leo
Insler, S. (1978) bull-killing = heliacal setting of Taurus
Jacobs, B. (1999) bull-killing = heliacal setting of Taurus
North, J.D. (1990) TM = Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) setting, his knife = Triangulum setting, his mantle = Capella (Alpha Aurigae) setting.
Rutgers, A.J. (1970) TM = Sun, Bull = Moon
Sandelin, K.-G. (1988) TM = Auriga
Speidel, M.P. (1980) TM = Orion
Ulansey, D. (1989) TM = Perseus
Weiss, M. (1994, 1998) TM = the Night Sky


Ulansey has proposed that Mithras seems to have been derived from the constellation of Perseus, which is positioned just above Taurus in the nigth sky. He sees iconographic and mythological parallels between the two figures: both are young heroes, carry a dagger and wear a Phrygian cap. He also mentions the similarity of the image of Perseus killing the Gorgon and the tauroctony, both figures being associated with underground caverns and both having connections to Persia as further evidence.

Michael Speidel associates Mithras with the constellation of Orion because of the proximity to Taurus, and the consistent nature of the depiction of the figure as having wide shoulders, a garment flared at the hem, and narrowed at the waist with a belt, thus taking on the form of the constellation.

Beck has criticized Speidel and Ulansey of adherence to a literal cartographic logic, describing their theories as a "will-o'-the-whisp" which "lured them down a false trail." He argues that a literal reading of the tauroctony as a star chart raises two major problems: it is difficult to find a constellation counterpart for Mithras himself (despite efforts by Speidel and Ulansey) and that unlike in a star chart, each feature of the tauroctony might have more than a single counterpart. Rather than seeing Mithras as a constellation, Beck argues that Mithras is the prime traveller on the celestial stage (represented by the other symbols of the scene), the Unconquered Sun moving through the constellations.

The banquet



The second most important scene after the tauroctony in Mithraic art is the so-called banquet scene. The two scenes are sometimes sculpted on the opposite sides of the same relief. The banquet scene features Mithras and the Sun god banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered bull . On the specific banquet scene on the Fiano Romano relief (see image on the right), one of the torchbearers points a caduceus towards the base of an altar, where flames appear to sprung up. Robert Turcan has argued that since the caduceus is an attribute of Mercury, and in mythology Mercury is depicted as a psychopompos, the eliciting of flames in this scene is referring to the dispatch of human souls and expressing the Mithraic doctrine on this matter. Turcan also connects this event to the tauroctony: the blood of the slayed bull has soaked the ground at the base of the altar, and from the blood the souls are elicited in flames by the caduceus.
Mithras riding bull


Mithraism and Christianity

The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithraism is based on a passing remark in the 2nd century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion rite. Based upon this, Ernest Renan in 1882 set forth a vivid depiction of two rival religions: "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic," Edwin M. Yamauchi comments on Renan's work which, "published nearly 150 years ago, has no value as a source. He [Renan] knew very little about Mithraism..."

The philosopher Celsus in the second century provides some evidence that Ophite gnostic ideas were influencing the mysteries of Mithras.

Mithras and the Virgin Birth

Joseph Campbell, who was not a Mithras scholar, described the birth of Mithras as a virgin birth, like that of Jesus. He gives no ancient source for his claim.

Mithras was not thought of as virgin born in any ancient source. Rather, he arose spontaneously from a rock in a cave. In Mithraic Studies it is stated that Mithras was born as an adult from solid rock, "wearing his Phrygian cap, issues forth from the rocky mass. As yet only his bare torso is visible. In each hand he raises aloft a lighted torch and, as an unusual detail, red flames shoot out all around him from the petra genetrix."

David Ulansey speculates that this was a belief derived from the Perseus' myths which held he was born from an underground cavern.

Mithras and 25 December

It is often stated that it was believed that Mithras was born on December 25. Beck calls this assertion "that hoariest of 'facts'". He continues: "In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of "Invictus" on that date in Calendar of Philocalus. 'Invictus' is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian's sun god. It does not follow that a different, earlier, and unofficial sun god, Sol Invictus Mithras, was necessarily or even probably, born on that day too."

Clauss states that there were no public ceremonies of the mysteries of Mithras: "the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own. The festival of natalis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)], held on 25 December, was a general festival of the Sun, and by no means specific to the Mysteries of Mithras."

Steven Hijmans has discussed in detail the question of whether the general "natalis Invicti" festival was related to Christmas but does not give Mithras as a possible source.

Mithras and Salvation

A painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum in Rome contains the words: et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us ... in the shed blood). The meaning of this is unclear, although presumably refers to the bull killed by Mithras, as no other source refers to a Mithraic salvation. According to Robert Turcan, Mithraic salvation had little to do with the other-worldly destiny of individual souls, but was on the Zoroastrian pattern of man's participation in the cosmic struggle of the good creation against the forces of evil

Mithras and the Taurobolium

No ancient source associates Mithras with the Taurobolium. The only monument to do so, CIL VI, 736, is a forgery.

Mithras and the Sign of the Cross

Tertullian states that followers of Mithras were marked on their forehead in an unspecified manner. There is no indication that this is a cross, or a branding, or a tattoo, or a permanent mark of any kind.

Mithraic art-motifs in medieval Christian art?

From the end of the 18th century some authors have suggested that some elements in medieval Christian art reflect images found in Mithraic reliefs. Franz Cumont was among these, although he studied each motif in isolation rather than the combination of several elements and whether they were combined in Christian art in the same way. Cumont said that after the triumph of the church over paganism, artists continued to make use of stock images originally devised for Mithras in order to depict the new and unfamiliar stories of the bible. The "stranglehold of the workshop" meant that the first Christian artworks were heavily based on pagan art, and "a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture".

A series of scholars have since discussed possible similarities with Mithraic reliefs in medieval Romanesque art. Vermaseren stated that the only certain example of such influence was an image of Elijah drawn up to heaven in a chariot drawn by fiery horses. Deman stated that to compare isolated elements was not useful, and that combinations should be studied. He also pointed out that a similarity of image does not tell us whether this implies an ideological influence, or merely a tradition of craftmanship. He then gave a list of medieval reliefs that parallel Mithraic images, but refused to draw conclusions from this, as these would be subjective.

References

  1. Commodian, Instructiones 1.13: "The unconquered one was born from a rock, if he is regarded as a god."
  2. Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p.xxi: "we possess virtually no theological statements either by Mithraists themselves or by other writers."
  3. Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum tells us of both writers.
  4. . p. 160: "The usual western nominative form of Hithras' name in the mysteries ended in -s, as we can see from the one authentic dedication in the nominative, recut over a dedication to Sarapis (463, Terme de Caracalla), and from occasional grammatical errors such as deo inviato Metras (1443). But it is probable that Euboulus and Pallas at least used the name Mithra as an indeclinable (ap. Porphyry, De abstinentia II.56 and IV.16)."
  5. See detailed discussion of possible origins below.
  6. Beck, R., “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of their Genesis”, Journal of Roman Studies, 1998, 115-128. p. 118.
  7. "Beck on Mithraism", pp 34–35. Online here.
  8. . Online here
  9. . Online here CIMRM 362 a , b = el l, VI 732 = Moretti, lGUR I 179: "Soli | Invicto Mithrae | T . Flavius Aug. lib. Hyginus | Ephebianus | d . d." - but the Greek title is just "`Hliwi Mithrai". The name "Flavius" for an imperial freedman dates it between 70-136 AD. The Greek section refers to a pater of the cult named Lollius Rufus, evidence of the existence of the rank system at this early date.
  10. C. M. Daniels, "The Roman army and the spread of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, 1975, Manchester UP, pp.249-274. "The considerable movement [of civil servants and military] throughout the empire was of great importance to Mithraism, and even with the very fragmentary and inadequate evidence that we have it is clear that the movement of troops was a major factor in the spread of the cult. Traditionally there are two geographical regions where Mithraism first struck root: Italy and the Danube. Italy I propose to omit, as the subject needs considerable discussion, and the introduction of the cult there, as witnessed by its early dedicators, seems not to have been military. Before we turn to the Danube, however, there is one early event (rather than geographical location) which should perhaps be mentioned briefly in passing. This is the supposed arrival of the cult in Italy as a result of Pompey the Great's defeat of Cicilian pirates, who practiced 'strange sacrifices of their own... and celebrated certain secret rites, amongst which those of Mithras continue to the present time, have been first instituted by them'. (ref Plutarch, "Pompey" 24-25) Suffice it to say that there is neither archaelogical nor allied evidence for the arrival of Mithraism in the west at that time, nor is there any ancient literary reference, either contemporary or later. If anything, Plutarch's mention carefully omits making the point that the cult was introduced into Italy at that time or by the pirates. Turning to the Danube, the earliest dedication from that region is an altar to Mitrhe (sic) set up by C. Sacidus Barbarus, a centurion of XV Appolinaris, stationed at the time at Carnuntum in Pannonia (Deutsch-Altenburg, Austria). The movements of this legion are particularly informative." The article then goes on to say that XV Appolinaris was originally based at Carnuntum, but between 62-71 transferred to the east, first in the Armenian campaign, and then to put down the Jewish uprising. Then 71- 86 back in Carnuntum, then 86-105 intermittently in the Dacian wars, then 105-114 back in Carnuntum, and finally moved to Cappadocia in 114.
  11. C. M. Daniels, "The Roman army and the spread of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, 1975, Manchester UP, p. 263. The first dateable Mithraeum outside italy is from Böckingen on the Neckar, where a centurion of the legion VIII Augustus dedicated two altars, one to Mithras and the other (dated 148) to Apollo.
  12. Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158. p.153: "At present this is the only Mithraeum known in Roman Palestine." p. 154: "It is difficult to assign an exact date to the founding of the Caesarea Maritima Mithraeum. No dedicatory plaques have been discovered that might aid in the dating. The lamps found with the taurectone medallion are from the end of the first century to the late third century A.D. Other pottery and coins from the vault are also from this era. Therefore it is speculated that this Mithraeum developed toward the end of the first century and remained active until the late third century. This matches the dates assigned to the Dura-Europos and the Sidon Mithraea."
  13. Vermaseren, M.J., Mithras: the Secret God, p. 29: "One other point of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century AD, and even the more extensive investigations at Pompeii, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in AD 79, have not produced a single image of the god."
  14. Statius, Thebaid (Book i. 719,720): "Mithras twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave."
  15. Pearse, Roger, Reference to Mithras in the Commentary of Servius? gives the sources and references.
  16. C.M.Daniels, "The role of the Roman army in the spread and practice of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnells (ed) Mithraic Studies: proceedings of the first International congress of Mithraic Studies Manchester university press (1975), vol. 2, p. 250: "Traditionally there are two geographical regions where Mithraism first struck root in the Roman empire: Italy and the Danube. Italy I propose to omit, as the subject needs considerable discussion, and the introduction of the cult there, as witnessed by its early dedicators, seems not to have been military. Before we turn to the Danube, however, there is one early event (rather than geographical location) which should perhaps be mentioned briefly in passing. This is the supposed arrival of the cult in Italy as a result of Pompey the Great's defeat of the Cilician pirates, who practised 'strange sacrifices of their own ... and celebrated certain secret rites, amongst which those of Mithra continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them'. Suffice it to say that there is neither archaeological nor allied evidence for the arrival of Mithraism in the West at that time, nor is there any ancient literary reference, either contemporary or later. If anything, Plutarch's mention carefully omits making the point that the cult was introduced into Italy at that time or by the pirates."
  17. Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, 6: "For according to Eubulus, Zoroaster first of all among the neighbouring mountains of Persia, consecrated a natural cave, florid and watered with fountains, in honour of Mithras the father of all things: a cave in the opinion of Zoroaster bearing a resemblance of the world fabricated by Mithras. But the things contained in the cavern, being disposed by certain intervals, according to symmetry and order, were symbols of the elements and climates of the world."
  18. Turcan, Robert, Mithras Platonicus, Leiden, 1975, via Beck, R. Merkelbach's Mithras p. 301-2.
  19. Beck, R. Merkelbach's Mithras p. 308 n.37.
  20. Beck, R. "Merkelbach's Mithras" in Phoenix 41.3 (1987) p. 298.
  21. John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" in Mithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 303-4: "Nevertheless we would not be justified in swinging to the opposite extreme from Cumont and Campbell and denying all connection between Mithraism and Iran."
  22. John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" in Mithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 303-4: "Since Cumont's reconstruction of the theology underlying the reliefs in terms of the Zoroastrian myth of creation depends upon the symbolic expression of the conflict of good and evil, we must now conclude that his reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography. What, then, do the reliefs depict? And how can we proceed in any study of Mithraism? I would accept with R. Gordon that Mithraic scholars must in future start with the Roman evidence, not by outlining Zoroastrian myths and then making the Roman iconography fit that scheme. ... Unless we discover Euboulus' history of Mithraism we are never likely to have conclusive proof for any theory. Perhaps all that can be hoped for is a theory which is in accordance with the evidence and commends itself by (mere) plausibility."
  23. John R. Hinnells, "Reflections on the bull-slaying scene" in Mithraic studies, vol. 2, p. 292: "Indeed, one can go further and say that the portrayal of Mithras given by Cumont is not merely unsupported by Iranian texts but is actually in serious conflict with known Iranian theology. Cumont reconstructs a primordial life of the god on earth, but such a concept is unthinkable in terms of known, specifically Zoroastrian, Iranian thought where the gods never, and apparently never could, live on earth. To interpret Roman Mithraism in terms of Zoroastrian thought and to argue for an earthly life of the god is to combine irreconcilables. If it is believed that Mithras had a primordial life on earth, then the concept of the god has changed so fundamentally that the Iranian background has become virtually irrelevant."
  24. R.L.Gordon, "Franz Cumont and the doctrines of Mithraism" in John R. Hinnells, Mithraic studies, vol. 1, p. 215 f
  25. pp. 243,n.18
  26. , p. 28: "Since the 1970s scholars of western Mithraism have generally agreed that Cumont's master narrative of east-west transfer is unsustainable;" although he adds that "recent trends in the scholarship on Iranian religion, by modifying the picture of that religion prior to the birth of the western mysteries, now render a revised Cumontian scenario of east-west transfer and continuities now viable."
  27. in , p. xiv.
  28. Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras, Konigstein, 1984, ch. 75-7
  29. Beck, R., "Merkelbach's Mithras", p. 304, 306.
  30. Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158. p.156:"Beyond these three Mithraea [in Syria and Palestine], there are only a handful of objects from Syria that may be identified with Mithraism. Archaeological evidence of Mithraism in Syria is therefore in marked contrast to the abundance of Mithraea and materials that have been located in the rest of the Roman Empire. Both the frequency and the quality of Mith-raic materials is greater in the rest of the empire. Even on the western frontier in Britain, archaeology has produced rich Mithraic materials, such as those found at Walbrook. If one accepts Cumont's theory that Mithraism began in Iran, moved west through Babylon to Asia Minor, and then to Rome, one would expect that the religion left its traces in those locations. Instead, archaeology indicates that Roman Mithraism had its epicenter in Rome. Wherever its ultimate place of origin may have been, the fully developed religion known as Mithraism seems to have begun in Rome and been carried to Syria by soldiers and merchants. None of the Mithraic materials or temples in Roman Syria except the Commagene sculpture bears any date earlier than the late first or early second century. [30. Mithras, identified with a Phrygian cap and the nimbus about his head, is depicted in colossal statuary erected by King Antiochus I of Commagene, 69-34 B.C.. (see Vermaseren, CIMRM 1.53-56). However, there are no other literary or archaeological evidences to indicate that the cult of Mithras as it was known among the Romans in the second to fourth centuries A.D. was practiced in Commagene]. While little can be proved from silence, it seems that the relative lack of archaeological evidence from Roman Syria would argue against the traditional theories for the origins of Mithraism."
  31. Ulansey, D., The origins of the Mithraic mysteries", p. 77f.
  32. pp. 52–61.
  33. . pp.150-151: "The first important expansion of the mysteries in the Empire seems to have occurred relatively rapidly late in the reign of Antoninus Pius and under Marcus Aurelius (9) . By that date, it is clear, the mysteries were fully institutionalised and capable of relatively stereotyped self-reproduction through the medium of an agreed, and highly complex, symbolic system reduced in iconography and architecture to a readable set of 'signs'. Yet we have good reason to believe that the establishment of at least some of those signs is to be dated at least as early as the Flavian period or in the very earliest years of the second century. Beyond that we cannot go..."
  34. Beck, R., Merkelbach's Mithras, p.299; Clauss, R., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 25: "... the astonishing spread of the cult in the later second and early third centuries AD ... This extraordinary expansion, documented by the archaeological monuments..."
  35. Clauss, R., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 25, referring to Porphyry, De Abstinentia, 2.56 and 4.16.3 (for Pallas) and De antro nympharum 6 (for Euboulus and his history).
  36. pp. IX.6: Sacra Mithriaca homicidio vero polluit, cum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat "He desecrated the rites of Mithras with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror".
  37. Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 24: "The cult of Mithras never became one of those supported by the state with public funds, and was never admitted to the official list of festivals celebrated by the state and army - at any rate as far as the latter is known to us from the Feriale Duranum, the religious calendar of the units at Dura-Europos in Coele Syria;" [where there was a Mithraeum] "the same is true of all the other mystery cults too." He adds that at the individual level, various individuals did hold roles both in the state cults and the priesthood of Mithras.
  38. Beck, R., Merkelbach's Mithras, p.299
  39. Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, pp.31-32.
  40. Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.171.
  41. pp. 206: "A few clandestine conventicles may, with stubborn persistence, have been held in the subterranean retreats of the palaces. The cult of the Persian god possibly existed as late as the fifth century in certain remote cantons of the Alps and the Vosges. For example, devotion to the Mithraic rites long persisted in the tribe of the Anauni, masters of a flourishing valley, of which a narrow defile closed the mouth." This is unreferenced; but the French text in Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra tom. 1, p. 348 has a footnote. The French text is referenced and discussed by Roger Pearse, Cumont on the end of the cult of Mithras which translates it and discusses the sources which are too long to include here.
  42. Meyer, Marvin W. (1976) The "Mithras Liturgy".
  43. , p. 85-87.
  44. "Beck on Mithraism", p. 16
  45. Jerome, Letters 107, ch. 2 (To Laeta}
  46. M.Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.133
  47. M. Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 42: "That the hand-shaken might make their vows joyfully forever"
  48. M. Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 105: "the followers of Mithras were the 'initiates of the theft of the bull, united by the handshake of the illustrious father." (Err. prof. relig. 5.2)
  49. "Beck on Mithraism", page 288-289
  50. in , p. 257
  51. Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.33.
  52. , at p. 121.
  53. Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70
  54. Zenobius Proverbia 5.78 (in Corpus paroemiographorum Graecorum vol. 1, p.151) (Clauss, p.70 n.84). Theon of Smyrna gives the same list but substitutes Phanes. See Albert de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin literature, p.309 on this; quoted on Pearse, Roger Zenobius on Mithras and Who is Theon of Smyrna?.
  55. Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70, photo p.71. The relief (Vermaseren 860) is now at the University of Newcastle.
  56. Ulansey, David, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, pp.120-1. Excerpts here.
  57. Vermaseren, M., The miraculous birth of Mithras, p.287 n.10. The relief is in the Estense Museum in Modena, Italy. See also F. Cumont, "Mithra et l'Orphisme", RHR CIX, 1934, 63 ff; M. P. Nilsson, "The Syncretistic Relief at Modena", Symb. Osi. XXIV, 1945, 1 ff.
  58. Vermaseren 695: marble relief from Mutina or Rome; V 475: Greek inscription from Rome, dedication by a Father and priest to Zeus-Helios-Mithras-Phanes
  59. Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.23-4. "Invictus" became a standard part of imperial titulature under Commodus, adopted from Hercules Invictus, but had been used for Mithras well before then.
  60. David Ulansey, The origins of the Mithraic mysteries, p. 6: "Although the iconography of the cult varied a great deal from temple to temple, there is one element of the cult's iconography which was present in essentially the same form in every mithraeum and which, moreover, was clearly of the utmost importance to the cult's ideology; namely the so-called tauroctony, or bull-slaying scene, in which the god Mithras, accompanied by a series of other figures, is depicted in the act of killing the bull."
  61. Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p.98-9. An image search for "tauroctony" will show many examples of the variations.
  62. J. R. Hinnells, "The Iconography of Cautes and Cautopates: the Data," Journal of Mithraic Studies 1, 1976, pp. 36-67. See also William W. Malandra, Cautes and Cautopates Encyclopedia Iranica article
  63. The Greater [Bundahishn] IV.19-20: "19. He let loose Greed, Needfulness, [Pestilence,] Disease, Hunger, Illness, Vice and Lethargy on the body of , Gav' and Gayomard. 20. Before his coming to the 'Gav', Ohrmazd gave the healing Cannabis, which is what one calls 'banj', to the' Gav' to eat, and rubbed it before her eyes, so that her discomfort, owing to smiting, [sin] and injury, might decrease; she immediately became feeble and ill, her milk dried up, and she passed away."
  64. , p. 291
  65. (1991 revised edition)
  66. Porphyry, De Antro nympharum 10: "Since, however, a cavern is an image and symbol of the world..."
  67. Porphyry, De antro nympharum 2: "For, as Eubulus says, Zoroaster was the first who consecrated in the neighbouring mountains of Persia, a spontaneously produced cave, florid, and having fountains, in honour of Mithra, the maker and father of all things; |12 a cave, according to Zoroaster, bearing a resemblance of the world, which was fabricated by Mithra. But the things contained in the cavern being arranged according to commensurate intervals, were symbols of the mundane elements and climates.
  68. Lewis M. Hopfe, "Archaeological indications on the origins of Roman Mithraism", in Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Uncovering ancient stones: essays in memory of H. Neil Richardson, Eisenbrauns (1994), pp. 147-158, p.154
  69. Beck, Roger, "Astral Symbolism in the Tauroctony: A statistical demonstration of the Extreme Improbability of Unintended Coincidence in the Selection of Elements in the Composition" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 257].
  70. Beck, Roger, "The Rise and Fall of Astral Identifications of the Tauroctonous Mithras" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 236].
  71. Ulansey, D., The origins of the Mithraic mysteries", p. 25-39.
  72. Michael P. Speidel, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God, Brill Academic Publishers (August 1997), ISBN 109004060553
  73. Beck, Roger, "In the place of the lion: Mithras in the tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 270-276.
  74. Beck, Roger, "In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 286-287].
  75. , p. 27-28.
  76. Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 66: "For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn."
  77. Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579: "On peut dire que, si le christianisme eût été arrêté dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eût été mithriaste."
  78. Edwin M. Yamauchi cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.175
  79. Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.17, referencing Origen, Contra Celsum book 6, cc.22-24 where a ladder of seven steps is described, similar to one used by the Ophites. Clauss states that the borrowing was by the Mithraists, but nothing in Contra Celsum seems to say so.
  80. pp. 260–61.
  81. Professor Edwin Yamauchi cited in Reinventing Jesus Daniel Wallace, p. 242
  82. Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975, p. 173
  83. Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1989
  84. , p. 299, n. 12.
  85. Clauss, Manfred. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. München: Beck, 1990, p. 70.
  86. Turcan, Robert, "Salut Mithriaque et soteriologie neoplatonicienne," La soteriologiea dei culti orientali nell'impero romano,eds. U. Bianchia nd M. J. Vermaseren, Leiden 1982. pp. 173-191
  87. Beck, Roger, Merkelbach's Mithras, p.301-2
  88. J. Lebegue, "Une inscription mithriaque du musée de Pesaro", Revue archaeologique, 3rd series, t. 14, pp. 64-9, 1889. See also blog post with inscription, translation, and summary of Lebegue's argument.
  89. Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40: "if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan, ) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown."
  90. Per Beskow, "Branding in the Mysteries of Mithras?", in Mysteria Mithrae, ed. Ugo Bianchi (Leyden 1979), 487-501. He describes the entire idea as a "scholarly myth". See also FAQ by Dr. Richard Gordon.
  91. pp. 507–17. p.507
  92. pp. 507–17. p.508
  93. pp. 227–8.
  94. pp. 507–17. p.509
  95. pp. 104–6.
  96. pp. 507–17. p.510


Further reading

  • Beck, Roger, "The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998 (1998) , pp. 115–128.
  • Beck, Roger, "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp. 2002-115. Important summary of the changes to Mithras scholarship.
  • Clauss, Manfred, The Roman cult of Mithras: the god and his mysteries, Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 198. ISBN 0-415-92977-6 here. An excellent concise view of the current consensus.
  • Cumont, Franz, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra : pub. avec une introduction critique, 2 vols. 1894-6. Vol. 1 is an introduction, now obsolete. Vol. 2 is a collection of primary data, online at Archive.org here, and still of some value.
  • Gordon, Richard, Frequently asked questions about the cult of Mithras. Some common misconceptions, and the comments of a professional Mithras scholar.
  • Hinnells, John (ed.), Proceedings of The First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press (1975).
  • Turcan, Robert, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000. Academic study.
  • Ulansey, David, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1989. An influential but non-mainstream account.
  • Vermaseren, M.J., Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1956, 2 vols. The standard collection of Mithraic reliefs.


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