1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mithras

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MITHRAS, a Persian god of light, whose worship, the latest one of importance to be brought from the Orient to Rome, spread throughout the empire and became the greatest antagonist of Christianity.

I. History and Distribution.—The cult goes back to a period before the separation of the Persians from the Hindus, as is shown by references in the literature's of both stocks, the Avesta and the Vedas. Though but faintly pictured in the Vedic hymns, he is there invoked with Ormazd, or Ahuramazda, the god of the sky, and is clearly a divinity of light, the protector of truth and the enemy of error and falsehood. In the Avesta, after the separation of the Iranian stock from the Hindu and the rise of Zoroastrianism, which elevated Ormazd to the summit of the Persian theological system, his rôle was more distinct, though less important; between Ormazd, who reigned in eternal brightness, and Ahriman, whose realm was eternal darkness, he occupied an intermediate position as the greatest of the yazatas, beings created by Ormazd to aid in the destruction of evil and the administration of the world. He was thus a deity of the realms of air and light, and, by transfer to the moral realm, the god of truth and loyalty. Because light is accompanied by heat, he was the god of vegetation and increase; he sent prosperity to the good, and annihilated the bad; he was the god of armies and the champion of heroes; as the enemy of darkness and of all evil spirits, he protected souls, accompanying them on the way to paradise, and was thus a redeemer. Animals and birds were sacrificed and libations poured to him, and prayers were addressed to him by devotees who had purified themselves by ablution and repeated flagellation. As a god who gave victory, he was prominent in the official cult of Persia, the seventh month and the sixteenth day of other months being sacred to him. His worship spread with the empire of the Persians throughout Asia Minor, and Babylon was an important centre. Its popularity remained unimpaired after the fall of Persia, and it was during the ferment following the conquests of Alexander that the characteristics which mark it during the Roman period were firmly fixed. Mithraism was at full maturity on its arrival at Rome, the only modifications it ever suffered having been experienced during its younger days in Asia.

Modified though never essentially changed, (1) by contact with the star-worship of the Chaldaeans, who identified Mithras with Shamash, god of the sun, (2) by the indigenous Armenian religion and other local Asiatic faiths and (3) by the Greeks of Asia Minor, who identified Mithras with Helios, and contributed to the success of his cult by equipping it for the first time with artistic representations (the famous Mithras relief originated in the Pergamene school towards the 2nd century B.C.), Mithraism was first transmitted to the Roman world during the 1st century B.C. by the Cilician pirates captured by Pompey. It attained no importance, however, for nearly two centuries. The lateness of its arrival in the West was due to the fact that its centres of influence were not in immediate contact with Greek and Roman civilization. It never became popular in Greek lands, and was regarded by Hellenized nations as a barbarous worship. It was at rivalry with the Egyptian religion. As late as the time of Augustus it was but little known in Roman territory, and gained a firm foothold in Italy only gradually, as a result of the intercourse between Rome and Asia consequent upon the erection of the Eastern provinces and the submission and colonization of Mesopotamia. It seems at first to have had relations with the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods at Rome, whose influence served to protect it and facilitate its growth. The cult of Mithras began to attract attention at Rome about the end of the 1st century A.D. Statius (c. A.D. 80) mentions the typical Mithraic relief in his Thebaid (i. 719, 720); from Plutarch's (A.D. 46-125) Vita Pompei (24) it is apparent that the worship was well known; and the first Roman reliefs show the characteristics of about the same time.

Towards the close of the 2nd century the cult had begun to spread rapidly through the army, the mercantile class, slaves and actual propagandists, all of which classes were largely composed of Asiatics. It throve especially among military posts, and in the track of trade, where its monuments have been discovered in greatest abundance. The German frontiers afford most evidence of its prosperity. Rome itself was a favourite seat of the religion. From the end of the 2nd century the emperors encouraged Mithraism, because of the support which it afforded to the divine right of monarchs. The Persian belief that the legitimate sovereign reigned by the grace of Ormazd, whose favour was made manifest by the sending of the Hvarenō, a kind of celestial aureole of fire, resulted in the doctrine that the sun was the giver of the Hvarenō. Mithras, identified with Sol Invictus at Rome, thus became the giver of authority and victory to the imperial house. From the time of Commodus, who participated in its mysteries, its supporters were to be found in all classes. Its importance at Rome may be judged from the abundance of monumental remains—more than 75 pieces of sculpture, 100 inscriptions, and ruins of temples and chapels in all parts of the city and suburbs.

Finally, philosophy as well as politics contributed to the success of Mithraism, for the outcome of the attempt to recognize in the Graeco-Roman gods only forces of nature was to make the Sun the most important of deities; and it was the Sun with whom Mithras was identified.

The beginning of the downfall of Mithraism dates from A.D. 275, when Dacia was lost to the empire, and the invasions of the northern peoples resulted in the destruction of temples along a great stretch of frontier, the natural stronghold of the cult. The aggression of Christianity also was now more effective. The emperors, however, favoured the cult, which was the army's favourite until Constantine destroyed its hopes. The reign of Julian and the usurpation of Eugenius renewed the hopes of its devotees, but the victory of Theodosius (394) may be considered the end of its existence. It still survived in certain cantons of the Alps in the 5th century, and clung to life with more tenacity in its Eastern home. Its legitimate successor was Manichaeism, which afforded a refuge to those mystics who had been shaken in faith, but not converted, by the polemics of the Church against their religion.

II. Sources, Remains, Ritual.—The sources of present knowledge regarding Mithraism consist of the Vedas, the Avesta, the Pahlevi writings, Greek and Latin literature and inscriptions, and the cult monuments. The monuments comprise the remains of nearly a score of temples and about 400 statues and bas reliefs. The Mithraic temples of Roman times were artificial grottoes (spelaea) wholly or partially underground, in imitation of the original selcluded mountain caverns of Asia. The Mithraeum hewn in the tufa quarries of the Capitoline Hill at Rome, still in existence during the Renaissance, is an example. The main room of the ordinary temple was rectangular, with an elevated apsidal arrangement, like a choir, containing the sacred relief on its wall, at the end opposite the entrance, and with continuous benches (podia) of masonry, about 5 ft. wide and inclining slightly towards the floor, built against the wall on its long sides. The ceiling was made to symbolize the firmament. There were arrangements for the brilliant illumination of the choir and its relief, which was sometimes sculptured on both sides and reversible, while the podia were intentionally more obscure. The choir and the long space between the podia were for ministrants, the podia themselves for kneeling worshippers. Two altars, to the Sun and the Moon, stood before the former, and cult statues along the latter. The approach to the grotto lay through a portico on the level with and fronting the street, and a pronaos, in communication with which was a kind of sacristy. Steps led to the lower level of the sanctuary. The simplicity and smallness of the Mithraic temples are to be accounted for by structural and financial reasons; an underground temple was difficult to construct on a large scale, and the worshippers of Mithras were usually from the humbler classes. The average grotto held from fifty to a hundred persons. The size of the sanctuaries, however, was compensated for by their number; in Ostia alone there were five.

The typical bas relief, which is found in great abundance in the museums of Europe, invariably represents Mithras, under the form of a youth with conical cap and flying drapery, slaying the sacred bull, the scorpion attacking the genitals of the animal, the serpent drinking its blood, the dog springing towards the wound in its side, and frequently, in addition, the Sun-god, his messenger the raven, a fig-tree, a lion, a ewer, and torch-bearers. The relief is in some instances enclosed in a frame of figures and scenes in relief. The best example is the monument of Osterburken (Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés, No. 246). With this monument as a basis, Franz Cumont has arranged the small Mithraic reliefs into two groups, one illustrating the legend of the origin of the gods, and the other the legend of Mithras. In the first group are found Infinite Time, or Cronus; Tellus and Atlas supporting the globe, representing the union of Earth and Heaven; Oceanus; the Fates; Infinite Time giving into the hand of his successor Ormazd the thunderbolt, the symbol of authority; Ormazd struggling with a giant of evil—the Mithraic gigantomachy. The second group represents, first, the birth of Mithras; then the god nude, cutting fruit and leaves from a fig-tree in which is the bust of a deity, and before which one of the winds is blowing upon Mithras; the god discharging an arrow against a rock from which springs a fountain whose water a figure is kneeling to receive in his palms; the bull in a small boat, near which again occurs the figure of the animal under a roof about to be set on fire by two figures; the bull in flight, with Mithras in pursuit; Mithras bearing the bull on his shoulders; Helios kneeling before Mithras; Helios and Mithras clasping hands over an altar; Mithras with drawn bow on a running horse; Mithras and Helios banqueting; Mithras and Helios mounting the chariot of the latter and rising in full course over the ocean. Few of the Mithraic reliefs are of even mediocre art. Among the best is the relief from the Capitoline grotto, now in the Louvre.

Cumont's interpretation of the main relief and its smaller companions involves the reconstruction of a Mithraic theology, a Mithraic legend, and a Mithraic symbolism. Paucity of evidence makes the first difficult. The head of the divine hierarchy of Mithras was Infinite Time—Cronus, Saturn; Heaven and Earth were his offspring, and begat Ocean, who formed with them a trinity corresponding to Jupiter, Juno, and Neptune. From Heaven and Earth sprang the remaining members of a circle analogous to the Olympic gods. Ahriman, also the son of Time, was the Persian Pluto. Owing to Semitic influence every Persian god had in Roman times come to possess a twofold significance—astrological and natural, Semitic and Iranian—the earlier and deeper Iranian significance being imparted by the clergy to the few intelligent elect, the more attractive and superficial Chaldaean symbolism being presented to the multitude. Mithras was the most important member of the circle. He was regarded as the mediator between suffering humanity and the unknowable and inaccessible god of all being, who reigned in the ether.

The Mithras legend has been lost, and can be reconstructed only from the scenes on the above described relief. Mithras was born of a rock, the marvel being seen only by certain shepherds, who brought gifts and adored him. Chilled by the wind, the new-born god went to a fig-tree, partook of its fruit, and clothed himself in its leaves. He then undertook to vanquish the beings already in the world, and rendered subject to him first the Sun, with whom he concluded a treaty of friendship. The most wonderful of his adventures, however, was that with the sacred bull which had been created by Ormazd. The hero seized it by the horns and was borne headlong in the flight of the animal, which he finally subdued and dragged into a cavern. The bull escaped, but was overtaken, and by order of the Sun, who sent his messenger the raven, was reluctantly sacrificed by Mithras. From the dying animal sprang the life of the earth, although Ahriman sent his emissaries to prevent it. The soul of the bull rose to the celestial spheres and became the guardian of herds and flocks under the name of Silvanus. Mithras was through his deed the creator of life. Meanwhile Ahriman sent a terrible drought upon the land. Mithras defeated his purpose by discharging an arrow against a rock and miraculously drawing the water from it. Next Ahriman sent a deluge, from which one man escaped in a boat with his cattle. Finally a fire desolated the earth, and only the creatures of Ormazd escaped. Mithras, his work accomplished, banqueted with the Sun for the last time, and was taken by him in his chariot to the habitation of the immortals, whence he continued to protect the faithful.

The symbolism employed by Mithraism finds its best illustration in the large central relief, which represents Mithras in the act of slaying the bull as a sacrifice to bring about terrestrial life, and thus portrays the concluding scenes in the legend of the sacred animal. The scorpion, attacking the genitals of the bull, is sent by Ahriman from the lower world to defeat the purpose of the sacrifice; the dog, springing towards the wound in the bull's side, was venerated by the Persians as the companion of Mithras; the serpent is the symbol of the earth being made fertile by drinking the blood of the sacrificial bull; the raven, towards which Mithras turns his face as if for direction, is the herald of the Sun-god, whose bust is near by, and who has ordered the sacrifice; various plants near the bull, and heads of wheat springing from his tail, symbolize the result of the sacrifice; the cypress is perhaps the tree of immortality. There was also an astrological symbolism, but it was superficial, and of secondary importance. The torch-bearers sometimes seen on the relief represent one being in three aspects—the morning, noon and evening sun, or the vernal, summer and autumn sun.

Owing to the almost absolute disappearance of documentary evidence, it is impossible to know otherwise than very imperfectly the inner life of Mithraism. Jerome (Epist. cvii.) and inscriptions preserve the knowledge that the mystic, sacratus, passed through seven degrees, which probably corresponded to the seven planetary spheres traversed by the soul in its progress to wisdom, perfect purity, and the abode of the blest; Corax, Raven, so named because the raven in Mithraic mythology was the servant of the Sun; Cryphius, Occult, a degree in the taking of which the mystic was perhaps hidden from others in the sanctuary by a veil, the removal of which was a solemn ceremonial; Miles, Soldier, signifying the holy warfare against evil in the service of the god; Leo, Lion, symbolic of the element of fire; Perses, Persian, clad in Asiatic costume, a reminiscence of the ancient origin of the religion; Heliodromus, Courier of the Sun, with whom Mithras was identified; Pater, Father, a degree bringing the mystic among those who had the general direction of the cult for the rest of their lives. One relief (Cumont, vol. i. p. 175, fig. 10) shows figures masked and costumed to represent Corax, Perses, Miles and Leo, indicating the practice on occasion of rites involving the use of sacred disguise, a custom probably reminiscent of the primitive time when men represented their deities under the form of animals, and believed themselves in closer communion with them when disguised to impersonate them. Of the seven degrees, those mystics not yet beyond the third, Miles, were not in full communion, and were called ὑπηρετοῦντες (servants); while the fourth degree, Leo, admitted them into the class of the fully initiate, the μετέχοντες (participants). No women were in any way connected with the cult, though the male sex could be admitted even in childhood. The time requisite for the several degrees is unknown, and may have been determined by the Patres, who conferred them in a solemn ceremony called Sacramentum, in which the initial step was an oath never to divulge what should be revealed, and for which the mystic had been specially prepared by lustral purification, prolonged abstinence, and severe deprivations. Special ceremonies accompanied the diverse degrees: Tertullian speaks of “marking the forehead of a Miles,” which may have been the branding of a Mithraic sign; honey was applied to the tongue and hands of the Leo and the Perses. A sacred communion of bread, water and possibly wine, compared by the Christian apologists to the Eucharist, was administered to the mystic who was entering upon one of the advanced degrees, perhaps Leo. The ceremony was probably commemorative of the banquet of Mithras and Helios before the former's ascension, and its effect strength of body, wisdom, prosperity, power to resist evil, and participation in the immortality enjoyed by the god himself. Other features reminiscent of the original barbarous rites in the primitive caverns of the East, no doubt also occupied a place in the cult; bandaging of eyes, binding of hands with the intestines of a fowl, leaping over a ditch filled with water, witnessing a simulated murder, are mentioned by the Pseudo-Augustine; and the manipulation of lights in the crypt, the administration of oaths, and the repetition of the sacred formulae, all contributed toward inducing state of ecstatic exaltation. What in the opinion of Albrecht Dieterich (Eine Mithrasliturgie, Leipzig, 1903) is a Mithras liturgy is preserved in a Greek MS. of Egyptian origin of about A.D. 300. It is the ritual of a magician, imbedded in which, and alternating with magic formulae and other occult matter, are a number of invocations and prayers which Dieterich reconstructs as a liturgy in use by the clergy of Mithras between A.D. 100 and 300, and adapted to this new use about the latter date.

The Mithraic priest, sacerdos or antistes, was sometimes also of the degree of pater. Tertullian (De praescr. haeret. 40) calls the chief priest summus pontifex, probably the pater patrum who had general supervision of all the initiates in one city, and states that he could marry but once. According to the same author, there were Mithraic, as well as Christian, virgines et continentes. Besides the administration of sacraments and the celebration of offices on special occasions, the priest kept alight the eternal fire on the altar, addressed prayers to the Sun at dawn, midday and twilight, turning towards east, south and west respectively. Clad in Eastern paraphernalia, he officiated at the numerous sacrifices indicated by the remains of iron and bronze knives, hatchets, chains, ashes and bones of oxen, sheep, goats, swine, fowl, &c. There was pouring of libations, chanting and music, and bells and candles were employed in the service. Each day of the week was marked by the adoration of a special planet, the sun being the most sacred of all, and certain dates, perhaps the sixteenth of each month and the equinoxes, in conformity with the character of Mithras as mediator, were set aside for special festivals.

The Mithraic community of worshippers, besides being a spiritual fraternity, was a legal corporation enjoying the right of holding property, with temporal officials at its head, like any other sodalitas: there were the decuriones and decem primi, governing councils resembling assembly and senate in cities; magistri, annually elected presidents; curatores, financial agents; defensores, advocates; and patroni, protectors among the influential. It may be that a single temple was the resort of several small associations of worshippers which were subdivisions of the whole community. The cult was supported mainly by voluntary contribution. An abundance of epigraphic evidence testifies to the devotion of rich and poor alike.

III. Moral Influence.—The rapid advance of Mithraism was due to its human qualities. Its communities were bound together by a sense of close fraternal relation. Its democracy obliterated the distinctions between rich and poor; slave and senator became subject to the same rule, eligible for the same honours, partook of the same communion, and were interred in the same type of sepulchre, to await the same resurrection. The reward of title and degree and the consequent rise in the esteem of his fellows and himself was also a strong incentive; but the Mithraic faith itself was the greatest factor. The impressiveness and the stimulating power of the mystic ceremonies, the consciousness of being the privileged possessor of the secret wisdom of the ancients, the sense of purification from sin, and the expectation of a better life where there was to be compensation for the sufferings of this world—were all strong appeals to human nature. The necessity of moral rectitude was itself an incentive. Courage, watchfulness, striving for purity, were all necessary in the incessant combat with the forces of evil. Resistance to sensuality was one aspect of the struggle, and asceticism was not unknown. Mithras was ever on the side of the faithful, who were certain to triumph both in this world and the next. The worthy soul ascended to its former home in the skies by seven gates or degrees, while the unworthy soul descended to the realms of Ahriman. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was accompanied by that of the resurrection of the flesh; the struggle between good and evil was one day to cease, and the divine bull was to appear on earth, Mithras was to descend to call all men from their tombs and to separate the good from the bad. The bull was to be sacrificed to Mithras, who was to mingle its fat with consecrated wine and give to drink of it to the just, rendering them immortal, while the unjust, together with Ahriman and his spirits, were to be destroyed by a fire sent from Heaven by Ormazd. The universe, renewed, was to enjoy eternal happiness.

IV. Relation to Christianity.—The most interesting aspect of Mithraism is its antagonism to Christianity. Both religions were of Oriental origin; they were propagated about the same time, and spread with equal rapidity on account of the same causes, viz. the unity of the political world and the debasement of its moral life. At the end of the 2nd century each had advanced to the farthest limits of the empire, though the one possessed greatest strength on the frontiers of the Teutonic countries, along the Danube and the Rhine, while the other throve especially in Asia and Africa. The points of collision were especially at Rome, in Africa, and in the Rhone Valley, and the struggle was the more obstinate because of the resemblances between the two religions, which were so numerous and so close as to be the subject of remark as early as the 2nd century, and the cause of mutual recrimination. The fraternal and democratic spirit of the first communities, and their humble origin; the identification of the object of adoration with light and the Sun; the legends of the shepherds with their gifts and adoration, the flood, and the ark; the representation in art of the fiery chariot, the drawing of water from the rock; the use of bell and candle, holy water and the communion; the sanctification of Sunday and of the 25th of December; the insistence on moral conduct, the emphasis placed upon abstinence and self-control; the doctrine of heaven and hell, of primitive revelation, of the mediation of the Logos emanating from the divine, the atoning sacrifice, the constant warfare between good and evil and the final triumph of the former, the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, the resurrection of the flesh and the fiery destruction of the universe—are some of the resemblances which, whether real or only apparent, enabled Mithraism to prolong its resistance to Christianity. At their root lay a common Eastern origin rather than any borrowing.

On the other hand, there were important contrasts between the two. Mithraism courted the favour of Roman paganism and combined monotheism with polytheism. While Christianity was uncompromising. The former as a consequence won large numbers of supporters who were drawn by the possibility it afforded of adopting an attractive faith which did not involve a rupture with the religion of Roman society, and consequently with the state. In the middle of the 3rd century Mithraism seemed on the verge of becoming the universal religion. Its eminence, however, was so largely based upon dalliance with Roman society, its weakness so great in having only a mythical character, instead of a personality, as an object of adoration, and in excluding women from its privileges, that it fell rapidly before the assaults of Christianity. Manichaeism, which combined the adoration of Zoroaster and Christ, became the refuge of those supporters of Mithraism who were inclined to compromise, while many found the transition to orthodox Christianity easy because of its very resemblance to their old faith.

See Franz Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra (Brussels, 1896, 1899), which has superseded all publications on the subject; Albrecht Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie (Leipzig, 1903). See also the translation of Cumont's Conclusions (the second part of vol. i. of the above work, published separately 1902, under the title Les Mystères de Mithra), by T. J. McCormack (Chicago and London, 1903). Extended bibliography in Roscher's Lexicon der Mythologie. (G. Sn.)