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Mithraism

1) Mithras in India and Iran

In 1907 a large number of clay tablets was found in the palace archives of Boghazkoy, the capital of the ancient Hittites in the north of the Anatolian plateau. These tablets contain the first recorded mention of the name 'Mithra', who, together with the Lord of Heaven, is invoked as the protector of a treaty between the Hatti (the Hittites) and their neighbours, the Mitanni. The date of the treaty is somewhere in the fourteenth century B.C., and since the latest known reference to the Western Mithras occurs in the fifth century A.D. these tablets show that the god was revered for nearly two thousand years.

Mithras is of course worshipped no longer, but archaeologists, historians of religion, theologians and linguists alike have pondered his nature and tried to unravel the secrets of his cult for the light which these studies have to throw on the origins of Christianity.

One insurmountable difficulty confronts the student of the Mithraic mysteries. For the Eastern form of Mithraism practically nothing except documentary evidence exists, whereas the Mithras of the Roman world is known to us almost exclusively from non-literary sources. That brilliant scholar, Franz Cumont, who died in 1947, has neatly summed up the position in his Die Mysterien des Mithra: 'It is,' he writes, 'as if it were only possible to study Christianity through the Old Testament and the mediaeval cathedrals.' Because of this great gap, the story of Mithras is bound to be incomplete and distorted, and those who wish to read it must wait for and assimilate the fresh discoveries which are made year by year.

The early Hittite treaty from Boghazkoy proves that some of the first Indo-Europeans had already adopted Mithras into their religions system, and so it is no surprise to find references to him in documents from early India as well as Iran. In the Veda, the sacred writings of India, he occurs frequently as 'Mithra', literally 'treaty'; in the Avesta, the holy book of the Persians, he is called 'Mithra' and a yasht, a special hymn of praise, is dedicated to him. Both in the Veda and the Avesta, Mithra is associated with the supreme being, Varuna or Ahura-Mazda, and shares their attributes, but different concepts of his nature have to be distinguished in these writings, since they combine sources of considerable antiquity with later material. Consequently Mithra does not always appear in the same character, and interpretations of him vary from time to time. Scholars who are familiar with these Eastern texts agree that in the early period Mithra was held in such honour that he competed for the crown with the lord of heaven.

To understand the place of Mithra in Iran it is necessary to keep in mind the division of the Persian pantheon into two major groups. On the one hand are the deities associated with Ahura-Mazda, the all-wise, who rules over the sublime realm of light, while on the other are the powers associated with Ahriman, the god of darkness. The two groups are in continual opposition to each other, but there will come a day when the forces of good will conquer the forces of evil. In this struggle Mithra has the status of a yazata, that is to say, an ally. He fights in the ranks of the good and righteous. He is a god of light, who in India was already regarded as the sun. Like the Homeric Helios he is all-seeing, and so an avenger of injustice and of everything in opposition to the ordained pattern of the universe. In one sense, therefore, Mithra is a god of the element of light, and in another he has a place in the cult of Ahuramazda; he is an extension of the idea of the supreme god from whom he takes his actual being. Just as the supreme god himself is surrounded by attendant powers, Amesha Spentas, who strictly speaking constitute his being, so the Indian Mithra also has lesser divinities around him, such as Aryaman, 'the protector of the destiny of the Aryans', and Bhaga, 'providence', who dispenses fortune. In ancient Persia these two attendant figures survive as Sraosha and Ashi and are to be identified with the two followers of Mithras who appear in the much later mysteries as Cautes and Cautopates.

Belief in the great power of Mithra was called in question by Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the great prophet who worked mainly in Eastern Iran and who lived some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. (The exact date is very widely disputed, but in the present state of our knowledge the latter date is the more probable.) It is a major drawback that his character has largely to be reconstructed from the Gathas, devotional hymns attributed to the prophet and written in an archaic and abstruse Eastern Iranian dialect which is extremely difficult to translate. It is, however, an established fact that Zarathushtra was a great reformer, who attempted to transform the established polytheism into a monotheist pattern with Ahuramazda as the sole and supreme god, and so found himself obliged to relegate Mithra to the background. He also attacked the forms of worship of his time, forbidding blood sacrifice such as the bull-offering and denying to his followers the ecstatic enjoyment of the spirituous Haoma. This measure in particular dealt a heavy blow to the Mithra cult, for Mithra was (as we shall see) closely associated with the bull, whose blood, mixed with the Haoma, bestowed immortality.

Whether or not his teaching was subsequently accepted by rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty such as Darius and Xerxes, it is clear that Zarathushtra never succeeded in entirely suppresing the popular feeling for Mithra. At the vey beginning of his career the poet-prophet experienced strong opposition which was to lead to his eventual murder in a temple. Thus in subsequent writings of the Avesta, in the tenth hymn for example, Mithra is reinstated in all his glory. This yasht breathes the true spirit of the popoular cult, and the prophet's influence is only to be seen dimly when the all-wise God speaks to Spitama Zarathushtra: 'When I created grass-land magnate Mithra, O Spitamid, I made such in worthiness to be worshipped and prayed to as myself, Ahura Mazdah' (Yasht x,1). Other passages from the tenth hymn speak for themselves:
You protect the countries in the same measure in which they strive to take care of grass-land Mithra; you destroy the countries to the same extent to which they are defiant.
I invoke yoy for assistance: may he join us for assistance, Mithra the strong, notorious splendid, master of countries, worthy to be worshipped, worthy to be prayed to! (Yasht x,78)

I will worship Mithra, who is good, strong, supernatural, foremost, merciful, incomparable, high-dwelling, a mighty strong warrior. Valiant, he is equipped with a well-fashioned weapon, he who watches in darkness, the undeceivable. He is what (is) mightiest among the very mighty, he is what (is) strongest among the very strong; he has by far the greatest insight among the gods. Fortune attends him, the valiant, who with his thousand ears and ten thousand eyes is the strong, all-knowing, undeceivable master of ten thousand spies. (Yasht x, 170-1)

Throughout the whole of this yasht there are references to Mithra's power, his greatness, and his readiness to fight, which specially endeared him to his followers and remained among his attributes for as long as he was honoured. In later centuries, too, these particular qualities inspired the votaries of Mithraic mysteries.

In Indian writings such as the Veda Mithra again appears as the attendant of the Lord of Heaven, Varuna. He is closely connected with the power of light and the sun, which is itself called 'the eye of Mitra and Varuna'. The connection between Mitra and the bull-which later became the focal point of the Mithras cult is perhaps even clearer in the Veda than in the Avesta. Thanks to Professor H. Lommel, a number of Vedic texts have been translated and can, so he believes, be associated with Mithras, the bull-slayer. Lommel's starting-point is the god of life, Soma, who is the same as Haoma and represents the rain which springs from the moon. He gives life to plants and so nourishes human beings and animals alike. In creatures of the male sex the sap of the plant is changed into fertile seed, in the female to milk. At death the life so given returns again to the moon and during the waxing of the moon Soma recovers this life force, refilling himself as if he were a bowl and so becoming the god's monthly portion of immortality. In the myth Soma, as rain, is both the semen of the sacred bull who fertilises the earth, and the milk of the all-nourishing heavenly cow. The gods, wishing to partake of the portion because of its gift of immortality, devise a plan to murder the Soma plant which is in fact Soma himself. The Wind-god Vayu agrees and Mitra too is invited to become an accomplice in the murder. The gods speak to Mitra ('he, whose name means "friend"'): '"We wish to kill King Soma." He said: "Not I, for I am friend to all." They said to him "Still we will slay him."' In the end Mithra, having been promised a share in the sacrifice, assists in the murder after all, but as I result he runs the risk of losing his ascendancy over the cattle, for the beasts turn against him with the towards: 'Though he is friend (Mitra) he has done a terrible deed.' Even Varuna takes a hand in the killing of Soma, who is murdered by being crushed under a weight of stones as in one of the cult ceremonies when the juice is extracted from the stem of the Soma-plant.

Soma supplies the life blood and the drink which is enjoyed by gods, priests and participants in the rite. Thus man is granted immortality, though through the agency of death from which only the gods are exempt.

It is interesting to compare the evidence of the Veda with that of the Avesta and particularly with the group of texts called the Bundahishn, in which the archetypal bull is killed and then the plants are created. In the later Mithras cult the god Soma-Haoma no longer appears, but tradition preserved the killing of the bull and its resultant gift of resurrection and so the connection between the Indo-Iranian cult of Mit(h)ra and the Western myth of Mithras the bull-slayer was preserved.

2) The arrival of Mithras in Europe

The circumstances which brought the god at last to Europe after hundreds of years are indeed strange. According to the historian Plutarch, who lived in the first century A.D., the Romans became acquainted with Mithras through pirates from Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor. These were the pirates who constituted such a threat to Rome until Pompey drove them from the seas.

In his biography of this skilful general, Plutarch writes of the pirates: 'They brought to Olympus in Lycia strange offerings and performed some secret mysteries, which still in the cult of Mithras, first made known by them [the pirates]'. In the middle of the second century A.D. the historian Appian adds that the pirates came to know of the mysteries from the troops who were left behind by the defeated army of Mithridates Eupator. It is well established that all kinds of Eastern races were represented in that army.

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates' homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as 'Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras'. The god was also worshipped in Tarsus, the capital of the province, as we know from coins of the Emperor Gordian III which bear a picture of the bull-slayer (Fig. 1.). One of the greatest campaigns against the Persians took place during the reign of Gordian III; the coin has propaganda value as Ernest Will has pointed out: ' L'hommage rendu au dieu perse adopte par Rome, au moment de la campagne contre sa patrie premiere, revet une valeur politique particuliere.'

Coin with with bull-slayer from Tarsus, minted in the reign of Gordian III A Shephered, witness at the birth of Mithras Mithras on horseback hunting in a forest of Cypresses
Fig. 1. Coin with with bull-slayer from Tarsus, minted in the reign of Gordian III Fig. 2. A Shephered, witness at the birth of Mithras Fig. 3. Mithras on horseback hunting in a forest of Cypresses

But can this evidence from the second and third centuries A.D. be taken as a confirmation of Plutarch's remarks about the Cilician pirates of the first century B.C.? Probably it can. The fact that representation of the bull-slayer occur on coins from Tarsus, through which Gordian III almost certainly passed on his way to battle, is evidence that Mithras was worshipped in this town in particular. Since Tarsus was situated at a road junction it is probable that its citizens became acquainted with the Mithraic cult at quite an early date. Plutarch, moreover, relates that the pirates committed outrages against the gods on Olympus where Hephaistos was worshipped. As devotees of the Eastern god they apparently felt little respect for the gods of the Greeks.

The pirates, a group of drifting adventures and, occasionally, fallen noblemen, conducted a communal worship of Mithras, whose cult was an exclusively made one. It is quite possible that these pirates introduced the Mithraic mysteries into Italy after their defeat and subsequent transportation there by Pompey. This event then offers a terminus post quem for the spread of the Mithras mysteries. Other early evidence of the first decades B.C. refers only to the reverence paid to Mithras without mentioning the mysteries; examples which may be quoted are the tomb inscriptions of King Antiochus I of Commagene at Nemrud Dagh, and of his father Mithridates at Arsameia on the Orontes. Both kings had erected on vast terraces a number of colossal statues seated on thrones to the honour of their ancestral gods. At Nemrud we find in their midst King Antiochus (69-34 B.C.) and in the inscription Mithras is mentioned together with Zeus-Ahura-Mazda, Hermes, Apollo-Helios and Herakles-Verethraghna. Thus Persian gods were invoked as protectors of the royal house. Both Mithridates and his son were represented in reliefs clasping hands with Mithras. Yearly feasts were held in honour of the deceased kings. But the inscriptions do not say anything about a secret cult of Mithras; the god simply takes his place beside the acknowledged state gods.

Though Plutarch's information is important, it must be borne in mind that the historian wrote his life of Pompey at the end of first century A.D. and it is not until then that we actually find in Rome the characteristic representation of Mithras as bull-slayer. The poet Statius (A.D. 80) describes Mithras as one who 'twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave'. One other point worthy of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D., and even the extensive investigations at Pompey, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, have not so far produced a single image of the god. There is therefore a complete gap in our knowledge between 67 B.C. and A.D. 79. The earliest datable monument is a statue from Rome, now in the British Museum; the inscription mentions a certain Alcimus, who calls himself the servant of T. Claudius Livianus, and, if the identification of this Livianus with the commander of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Trajan is correct, then the figure must date from the beginning of the second century A.D. From this period onwards, the trail blazed by Mithras is broad and clear; the god's cult becomes firmly established and traces are found even on the Capitol and the Palatine, the heart of Imperial Rome.

Abstracted from : Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963

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