Mithras, or Mitra, is a very ancient deity. In the Vedic religions that preceded Hinduism, Mitra is a solar deity of oaths and treaties who is closely connected with the sky god Varuna. In Persian religion, he is also a solar deity of friendship and honesty operating under the supreme god Ahura Mazda. The god has similar roles in these two cultures because they both share an older Indo-European heritage.
Apparently Mitra was a comparatively minor deity until the reformer Zoroaster revised Persian religion. In his view the cosmos was divided between a clash of light and darkness, good and evil. Zoroaster was essentially a monotheist, with Ahura Mazda as his one god. But unofficial cults sprung out of Zoroaster's teachings which gave the Old Persian gods a new place in the Zoraster's cosmic struggle. In these cults Mitra became the champion of the good god Ahura Mazda, a force of light and salvation against demons and darkness. Mitra ruled over the earth and vegetation, and was the judge of the souls of the dead. He was omniscient, ever present, and his birth was celebrated on the eve of the winter solstice.
As the Persian Empire spread, the cult of Mitra spread with it. He was found interacting with indigenous Near East deities. Later the Greeks and Macedonians took over the Persian Empire, beginning the Hellenistic age. The Persian Mithras came to be identified with some Greek gods like Helios and Apollo. The cult of Mithras never quite caught on with the Greeks, but it was practiced by subject peoples in the Hellenistic world, such as in Asia Minor. The Cicilian pirates who terrorized Rome practiced some version of the cult.
The evidence for the proper introduction of the cult to Italy doesn't begin until well into the first century. It most likely was brought by Oriental troops serving in the legions. From there it spread to port towns and military bases across the empire, with the greatest concentration outside of Rome and Ostia being along the Germanic frontier. The public cult of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, was peripherally related to the private Mithraic cult and became the official religion of the empire until conversion to Christianity.
The Mithraic cult as practiced by Romans became highly connected with the vitality of Roman society. When the vitality started disintegrating seriously in the fourth century, the cult declined with it. Theodosius formally outlawed all pagan sects, and Mithraism was officially abolished. It did continue in secret for a number of years, but the cult was never the same with the nadir of Roman power in the West. Suggestions that elements of Mithraism might have survived throughout history and incorporated into modern cults like Masonry cannot be adequately proven.
The Cult and its Doctrines
Mithraists met in caverns or in artificial enclosures made to resemble caverns. Like the early Christians, many of these complexes were financed and operated secretly, and built underground. These cult centers are small, typically not being able to hold any more than forty members. Thus while Mithraeums are found throughout the empire, the small congregations prove that Mithraism was a distinctly minority religion.
Of the members of the cult, the mainstay were soldiers. Soldiers of all ranks could be members, but in some places it seems the cult appealed to officers much more than lower ranks. There were also imperial administrators and civil servants of every ranks, as well as traders, craftsmen, and many others connected to the imperial economy or government. While some slaves were also members of the cult, on the whole it seems like Mithraism appealed to those connected with the Imperial establishment. The opportunity to make social connections among Rome's powerful may have appealed to some members as much as any purely religious sentiment.
Mithraic congregations were tightly knit groups that met in private to progress through spiritual, esoteric knowledge and celebrate the god in communal meals. The cult was organized along a hierarchy of seven grades, and advancement through the cult was contingent on mastering various physical and spiritual trials.
Mithras was not a jealous god, and other gods can be found honored alongside Mithras. Members of the Mithraic cult sometimes doubled as members of other Mystery cults, as well as practicing the more mainstream religions of the Greco-Roman world.
The central motive of every Mithraeum is a representation of Mithras dragging a bull and slitting its throat. Mithras is also surrounded by other animals representing the zodiac, and celestial elements like the sun, moon and stars are constantly present. Scholars disagree as to the exact nature of the meaning of this, but two explanations are likely.
The first is that the slaying of the bull represents a cosmic regeneration. In many Oriental cultures, the bull is a symbol of fertility. In times of drought, bulls were sacrificed and their blood spilled to the ground to renew the fertility of the earth and forestall famine. From this perspective, Mithras is a cosmic regenerative force. By shedding the blood of the cosmic bull, he nourishes the universe against the forces of darkness that undermine life.
Another possibility is that the bull represents the constellation of Taurus. At the dawn of civilization the sun rose in the zodiacal sign of Taurus during the vernal equinox. By classical times the sun, due to the natural progression of astrological bodies, had moved out of Taurus into another constellation. According to this view, Mithras by slaying the bull is in effect ending the Age of Taurus and inaugurating a new zodiacal age. Mithras is thus a god of the cosmos with the power to move the heavens, and who regulates the great astrological cycles. The Mithraic cult would then celebrate the progression of equinoxes and solstices under the direction of its god.
In the absence of evidence scholars cannot agree on the exact meaning of the cult. Some scholars even deny that the Roman Mithras has any connection with the Indo-Iranian Mithras, as the Mithras of those cultures was never known to slay a bull. If the Roman Mithras is a descendant of the older Mithras, it must be understood that his cult evolved over the generations in many different lands, absorbing influences from each of them.
One thing that is known is that cult practiced an austere set of ethics that are quite similar to Stoicism. The influence of this Hellenistic-Roman philosophy on the religious cult seems evident. Mithraists believed in duty, honor and sacrifice. Mithras made sacred certain values that were seen as traditional to the Roman soldier.
Mithraism and Christianity
Much has been made about the interaction between Mithraism and Christianity, as the two share a few beliefs and practices. Critics of Christianity claim the early Christ cults must have stolen from the Mithraic cults in an effort to make Christianity more appealing. Christian scholars disagree, claiming that Christianity was established in Rome before Mithraism and any borrowing must have happened in the opposite direction. Still other scholars doubt either cult borrowed from the other, asserting any similarity between the two cults is rooted in a mindset common to many Greco-Oriental mystery religions.
It was once asserted that Mithraism was Christianity's principle competitor, and would have become the official religion of the empire if Christianity had declined. This has been proven utterly false. The cult of Mithras was confined to a small section of the population - perhaps one or two percent. It also, unlike Christianity, excluded women. The cult members of Mithras - soldiers, administrators, traders - were by and large members who identified with the imperial establishment. Christianity's earliest successes were among foreigners and the urban proletariat - people most likely opposed to the imperial establishment. In terms of numbers, Mithraism could never have competed with Christianity, and most likely did not try. The cults were directed at different segments of the population.
Did you know...
Around the first century AD, the Greek historian Plutarch wrote about pirates of Cilicia who practiced the Mithraic "secret rites" around 67 BC.