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History of Mithraism researches

Mithraism, or the cult of Mihr, is one of the most important religions of the ancient world. Now obscure, it once ruled a region from Iran to Asia Minor and was practiced throughout the Roman empire. According to Ernest Renan, if Christianity had not been successful in challenging it, Mithraism would have been the world's greatest religion. But in fact Christianity never was able to destroy Mithraism completely, and many of its features became incorporated into Christianity, like the holy bread, wine and the Ascension (of Jesus Christ). On the other hand, the Christian clergy never shied from aggresion and violence toward the cult of Mihr, destructing the Mithraiums and massacring the adherents of this religion, so that now we have no extensive evidence of its existence. The Mithraists were not so keen to celebrate their festivities in public either, which led to public suspicion of these people. This is why the cult remained unknown for hundreds of years until the nineteenth century, when the new science of archaeology helped the researchers a great deal. The first person to begin an in depth analysis of the cult was the French archaeologist Felix Lajard; this article in fact is a survey of his researches. The Mithraism researches reached their peak in the twentieth century. Jean-Baptiste Felix Lajard, the French archaeologist, was born in Lyon, March 1783. One of his most important studies was on the relationship between the Greek civilization and its eastern counterpart, and another was on the origins of Hellenistic cults. He travelled on diplomatic missions to Greece, Russia and Denmark and was a member of the Academy.

One of his works is Research on the Venus Cult, published in 1847:

1) Recherches sur le culte de Venus, 1847.

His masterpiece is the great Atlas of Mithraian Bas-Reliefs, published in 1847:

2) L'introduction a l'etude du culte public et des mysteres de Mithra en orient et en occident, 1847.

He wrote also a Research on the Cult Associated with the Pyramidal Cypress which he published in 1854:

3) Recherches sur le culte pyramidal chez les peuples civilises de l'antiquite, 1854.

His last work is about the mysteries of the Mithraism cult in the east and west, which in fact is a supplementary book concerning the images of his famous Atlas. That was published posthumously in 1867:

4) Recherches sur le culte public et les mysteries de Mithra en orient et en occident, 1867.

He found scrolls from Babylon which are now kept in the Paris National Library. Felix Lajard died in Tours in September 1858 at the age of seventy-five.

He is one of the most prominent researchers of this ancient religion and as it was said, his Atlas is a valuable reference for the scientists. On the other hand, his research into the Mithraist cult has lost its authenticity after the researches done by Franz Cumont and Martin Vermaseren. But it should be noted that during his time the works of famous Iranologists Justi, Spiegel, Windischmann, Darmesteter, West etc. weren't yet published and Lajard had access to only the Avesta of Anquetil Du Perron, which was full of errors and not having the authenticity of Tomas Hyde's famous book. The book's false translation led to Lajard's strange and misleading deductions. For example eorosch1 which is an Avestan adjective meaning white, is translated as raven and eoroschasp2 (Mihr yasht, 26) which means white house, is said to mean raven-house and probably ostrich (!) which may have a sacred place in the religion.3 He thought eorosch to be from the Hebrew word, ereb which, as in Arabic, simultaneously means raven and night. He considers the Latin Corvus and German Rabe to be from this origin. Aschterenghad4 (Mihr yasht, 28), meaning to lash or to kill by dagger, is said to mean vulture and a rank in the Mithraist hierarchy.5 Aschozescht (Vendidad, 17), is another word for owl and is also called Morgh-e Bhman6. This word and Sagdid are both taken to mean vulture.7 Houfraschmodad,8 which means sunset, is thought to mean rooster, the sun bird, which is guardian of life and health. He has taken rooster, vulture, ostrich and raven to be symbols of Mithra, along with pigeon, eagle and sparrow-hawk which are the symbols of Ahura-Mazda. All these seven are thought to be equivalents of seven holy birds in the Assyrian religion, the seven Amshaspands and the seven planets.9 Nowadays it is known that Mithraism transcendency includes seven stages, not twelve, and stages called ‘ostrich’ and ‘vulture’ never existed in the cult. Among his faults, he called Zoroaster an adherent of the Chaldees' Assyrian religion10 and also he mistook the images of Zurvan and Farvahar for those of Mithra. But considering his time, his depth of knowledge is respectable. His books on the cult of Venus and the cult of cypress are evidence of this.


1. exact transcription: aurush
2. exact transcription: aurushaspa
3. pp. 283, 338, 341, 275
4. exact transcription: ashtranghas
5. p. 275
6. p. 290
7. p. 288
8. it seems that he means hufrashmodaiti.
9. pp. 282-284
10. p. 356

Translated by Nima Sadjadi from his own article published in Persian in Tchissta on July 2001
Persian version is available here.

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