Mithraism: History and Major Facts about this Mystery Cult in the Roman Empire

Mithraism was a mystery religion that originated in the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD and was dedicated to the worship of the god Mithras. First developing on the Italian Peninsula, the religion was popular among soldiers and spread throughout the Roman Empire, with Mithraic temples being found from Rome’s Eastern province in Syria to Britain.

Hellenistic historians often claimed that Mithraism first developed in Persia or among the Persians. However, if that were the case, why have archeologists discovered the majority of Mithraic temples in Italy? Another question that begs to be answered is: Why was the cult so popular among soldiers?

In the article below, World History Edu explores the origin story, growth and decline of this mystery cult in the Roman world.

Mithras – the Indo-Iranian deity of order and contract

The god Mithras was worshiped by the Mithraic Mysteries in underground caves. Image: Mithras slaying the bull in the cavern

Mithraicism had at the center of its worship Mithra, the Iranian god of light, order, covenant, justice, and the sun. The deity was also believed to be in charge of harvest and fertility.

His name in some Persian languages translate to “to bind” or “causing to”. The former perfectly captures his role as a deity of contract and oath.

Mithra was also known as by his epithet “The all-seeing protector of the truth”. As a result, he was seen as a deity that could no err, or could not be compromised in any shape or form. He was always committed to the truth, order and justice.

Mithras: Fast Facts

Major cult center: Rome

Temple: Mithraeum

Symbols: bull, cattle, spade, torch, crown, whip, sistrum, lightning bolt, sword, crescent moon, star, sickle

Association: Sol (or Sol Indiges), Helios, Luna, Saturn, and twins Cautes and Cautopates

Gender: male

Depiction: A youth slaying a bull in a cavern

Growth of the Cult of Mithras

Up until the early 4th century, the Mithraic cult remained in the good books of Roman emperors. This was because the cult supported the Roman emperors and the elites.

Across the empire, there were hundreds of Mithras temples (mithraea). In Rome alone, there were more than 60 Mithraic sanctuaries. It was often the case that the cult was concentrated in Italy, on the Rhine, and the Danube.

Did you know?

According to the 4th-century Historia Augusta, Roman emperor Commodus (reign: 177-192) participated in the Mithraic mysteries, but it never became one of the state cults.

The Tauroctony: The killing of the bull in the Mithraic Mysteries

Mithraic Mysteries

It was believed that by killing the bull, Mithras ushered in a new life. That rebirth also symbolized a new cosmic order as Mithras was sometimes depicted alongside deities such as Sol (the Sun), Luna (the moon), and Saturn (time). Image: Tauroctony fresco in the mithraeum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, 2nd century.

What we know about the Mithraic Mysteries primarily revolves around the depictions of Mithras slaying a mighty and powerful bull. This act symbolizes a number of things, most importantly rebirth, fertility and strength. Like many ancient societies, Romans perceived the bull as one of fertility, power and strength. Members of this secretive religious cult believed that the death of the bull symbolized a kind of rebirth of the universe.

The term “tauroctony” comes from the Greek word tauroktonos, which means “bull killing”.

Depictions in the Mithraic Mysteries

The commonest depiction in Mithraism is the image of the god Mithras sacrificing a bull. In almost every Mithraic underground temple (mithraeum) that has been discovered so far, there exist this powerful image of Mithras killing the bull. The deity is often shown donning what Romans perceived as “Persian” cap and pants. This depiction was made in keeping up with Mithras’ Persian origins. In actual sense, the costume worn by Mithras was not Persian; instead they were actually Phrygian of Anatolia.

The reliefs found so far usually show Mithras casting his gaze at the moon after delivering a lethal blow to the bull. Like the bull, the moon was a potent symbol of fertility among many ancient cultures. By gazing at the moon, it is as if Mithras is draining the fertility from the bull.

In other relief works, Mithras stares at Sol after slaying the bull. This makes him associated with Roman sun god.

Also in the reliefs are the images are some other animals – snake, dog, and scorpion – believed to be assistants of Mithras. The snake and dog can be seen drinking the blood that drips from the bull; while the scorpion strikes at the scrotum of the bull.

To the top left and top right of Mithras are the deities Sol and Luna, respectively. With respect to the latter, the deity can be seen driving a biga (a two-horse chariot in ancient Rome).

Other depictions

Mithraic mysteries

Sol and Mithras banqueting with Luna and the twin divinities Cautes and Cautopates. The twin deities were seen as Mithras’ assistants.

In some scenes from the discovered Mithraic temples, Mithras is shown in his youth being born from a rock. In other scenes, he is shown emerging from the rock as a child. There are also depictions of Mithras wielding weapons such as bows and arrows. In addition to snake, dog and raven, Mithras has been depicted with animals such as eagles, crocodiles, lions and snails.

Also, there are some depictions of him being surrounded by the four elements that are believed to be Victoria, Luna, Sol, and Saturn – representing the concepts of victory, moon, sun, and time. Saturn, a Roman god of time, can be seen presenting a dagger to Mithras.

Mithras and the 12 Zodiac signs

The whole bull-slaying and banqueting is believed to occur in a cavern. In some cases, the cavern has a circle around it, which symbolizes the 12 zodiac signs.

Mithras and Sol Invictus

Mithras and Sol

Mithras is depicted looking to Sol Invictus as he slays the bull. Sol and Luna appear at the top of the relief.

Sitting on top of the bull’s grain-shaped tail is a raven. Some scholars opine that the raven was believed to serve as a divine link between the Roman sun god Sol Invictus and Mithras. In other depictions, Mithras is shown alongside Sol, with whom he shares a banquet. The two are seen feasting on a meal of bull parts.

Sol, who is depicted outside the cavern to the top left, can be seen with his radiate crown riding a quadriga (i.e. a four-horse drawn chariot in classical antiquity). In other reliefs, the two deities can be seen shaking hands with each other, or Sol kneeling to Mithras.

Twin deities Cautes and Cautopates: Mithras’ torch-bearers of death and life

Twin deities Cautes and Cautopates

Depicted on either side of Mithras are his two torch-bearers – Cautes and Cautopates. Image: Mosaic (1st century CE) depicting Mithras emerging from his cave and flanked by Cautes and Cautopates

Cautes and Cautopates were two figures that were commonly depicted in Mithraic iconography, usually as a pair of standing figures flanking the god Mithras. They were often depicted as young men, with Cautes holding a torch pointing upwards and Cautopates holding a torch pointing downwards.

The meaning of Cautes and Cautopates is not entirely clear, as the Mithraic religion was a mystery cult and kept its teachings secret. However, it is generally believed that they represented the rising and setting of the sun, or the cycle of day and night. Cautes, holding a torch pointing upwards, represented the rising sun and the beginning of the day, while Cautopates, holding a torch pointing downwards, represented the setting sun and the end of the day.

In some interpretations, Cautes and Cautopates also symbolized the duality of life and death, with Cautes representing birth and Cautopates representing death. As such, they were seen as guardians of the threshold between life and death, and were often depicted at the entrance to Mithraic sanctuaries and temples.

In addition to their role as symbolic guardians, Cautes and Cautopates were also associated with the Mithraic initiation rites. As initiates progressed through the seven degrees of initiation, they were said to pass between the figures of Cautes and Cautopates, symbolizing their journey towards spiritual enlightenment and rebirth.

Worship and rituals

Mithraic temples and sanctuaries

The image of Mithras’ slaying a bull appears to be central in every relief and sculpture works of the Mithraic Mysteries. Image: A mithraeum (i.e. a Mithraic temple) found in the ruins of Ostia Antica, Italy.

Even though, bull sacrifice featured a lot in the artwork of the Mithraic Mysteries, Romans hardly offered any form of animal sacrifice to Mithras.

So, the question that begs to be answered is: What really transpired during religious ceremonies in those underground caves of the Mithraic Mysteries?

In those caves, scholars and archeologists discovered a number of animal bones remain and fragments of dishes. It is likely that worshippers of Mithras simply dined and feasted during religious ceremonies. Some scholars opine that the worshippers enacted Mithras’ sharing of meat with Sol Invictus.

The Mithraic Mysteries was said to be very popular among Roman soldiers and generals as well as freed slaves. Its association with soldiers was perhaps the reason why women were not allowed to enter the cult.

Mithras was not only worshiped in the cult temples of the Mithraic Mysteries. The deity was sometimes worshiped in the temples of other traditional state deities like Sol, Jupiter, and Apollo.

The ritual of being “reborn” in the Mithraic Mysteries

Per the surviving paintings that we see in those underground caves, we can say for a fact that the concept of rebirth underpinned the initiation rituals into Mithraism. In one of the paintings, the initiate is required to go through some kind of exercise to prove his/her courage and devotion to the faith.

The first stage in the exercise sees the initiate stripped naked and thereafter blindfolded. After that the initiate is asked to kneel before the high priest (i.e. “father”), who then flashes a either a sword or a torch across the initiate’s face.

Then, the initiate is asked to lay flat on the ground. This symbolically represented the “death” of the initiate. After a few incantations, the initiate is then asked to rise to their feet. This penultimate act symbolizes the rebirth of the initiate in the light of the god Mithras.

Finally, the “father” places a crown on the initiate’s head and asks the initiate to forever remain loyal to the faith by reciting “Mithras is my only crown”.

The Seven Degrees of Initiation in the Mithraic Mysteries

The Seven Degrees of Initiation in the Mithraic Mysteries were a system of progressive stages or levels of spiritual advancement within the Mithraic religion. The exact details of the initiation process are not known with certainty, as the religion was a mystery cult and kept its rituals and teachings secret.

However, some general information can be gleaned from surviving texts, art, and inscriptions. The seven degrees are often depicted as a ladder or staircase leading upwards, with each step symbolizing a different level of spiritual attainment.

The first degree, known as Corax or Raven, was the entry-level initiation and marked the beginning of the aspirant’s journey towards enlightenment.

The second degree, known as Nymphus or Bridegroom, involved a period of purification and the offering of a sacred meal to the deity Mithras.

The third degree, Miles or Soldier, marked the aspirant’s entry into the Mithraic army and was associated with the symbolic slaying of the bull, which represented the triumph of the soul over the body.

The fourth degree, Leo or Lion, marked a further stage of spiritual advancement and was associated with the constellation Leo.

The fifth degree, Perses or Persian, was associated with the god Aion and marked a shift towards a more mystical and esoteric understanding of the Mithraic teachings.

The sixth degree, Heliodromus or Sun-Runner, involved the aspirant’s identification with the Sun, which was seen as a symbol of Mithras himself.

The final and highest degree, Pater or Father, marked the attainment of full spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine. The initiate was then considered to be a full member of the Mithraic community and was entitled to participate in all of its rituals and practices.

It is said that each degree came with its own set of duties. For example, the first degree, a “raven”, was responsible for carrying the food.

“United by the handshake”

After completing the initiation process, a follower of the Mithraic mysteries came to be known as one of the syndexioi. The term, which translates as “those united by the handshake”, makes reference to the handshake between Sol Invictus and Mithra.

Persecution of Mithraism and its followers in the 4th century

In the late Roman Empire, persecution of pagan Romans intensified, especially during the reigns of Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I. Those rulers came out with many anti-pagan policies that imposed very steep penalties on pagans, especially members of the Mithraic mysteries.

Early Christians in the Roman Empire regarded Mithraism with the highest form of contempt, sometimes seeing followers of the cult as their arch rivals. Following the passage of Emperor Theodosius anti-pagan decrees in the late 4th century, persecution of Mithraism intensified as many of their sanctuaries were destroyed.

Such was the intensity of the persecution of Mithraism by Christians in the 4th century that Christians believed the coins possessed by the followers of the cult were evil.

Persecution of Mithraic mysteries

Roman Emperor Theodosius I (reign: 379-395)

Legacy

Mithraism declined in the 4th century AD with the rise of Christianity, which eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. However, some aspects of Mithraism, such as its iconography, were adopted by Christianity and continue to influence Christian art to this day.

Some scholars point to the concept of rebirth as similar to the Christian belief of being reborn in Christ’s blood. According to Tertullian, a 3rd-century Christian historian from the Roman province of Africa, initiates were given a ritual bath almost similar to the baptism ceremony Christian converts received.

Questions & Answers

History and facts of the Mithraic Mysteries

Why was the cult beloved by soldiers and freed slaves?

In its early years, Mithraism developed quite a following among Roman soldiers and generals. Perhaps this was because of the belief that Mithras granted its followers with strength. It is also possible that the thought of being reborn in the light of Mithras appealed to those soldiers. The comradeship that exists among soldiers was also one of the reasons why many Roman soldiers were drawn to the cult – a cult whose deity was associated with contract, order, and friendship.

As the Mithraic Mysteries gained steam in its worship in Rome, the faith became attractive to freed slaves. Again, this group of people were attracted by the belief that a freed slave could shed off their old life and then be reborn in the powerful light of Mithras.

It must be noted, the women were banned from being members of the Mithraic Mysteries. There exist no explanation as to why this was the case.

Why didn’t Mithraic votaries and followers leave any account of their cult and rituals?

First of all, the Mithraic Mysteries was meant to remain as mysterious as possible to non-followers. Therefore, there was no need for them to make any written account of their rituals. The few surviving accounts of the cult come from the paintings and carvings they made deep in their caves and temples.

Did Mithraism truly originate from Persia?

With many of the Mithraic temples unearthed in Italy, one begins to wonder if the cult truly originated from Persia. Considering how expansive the Roman Empire was, the Romans were no strangers to act of assimilating foreign gods and cults into their religious beliefs. However, to this day, archeologists and historians are still yet to discover any Mithraic temple or significant Mithraic artworks in Persia.

What is even more mind boggling is the fact that not many discoveries have been made of Mithraic temples in the border region between the Roman Empire and Persia. How is that even possible? How then did Mithraism and the cult arrive in Rome?

The lack of any reasonable explanation has led some scholars to believe that Mithraism originated in Italy and not Persia. Those who hold this view argue that the early followers of the cult likely borrowed a few religious concepts from Persia in order to pass of Mithraism to the Romans as a foreign cult. However, there exist no evidence to support this view.

Some scholars state that the Mithras that was worshiped in the Mithraic Mysteries in Rome was a different god from the ones that were worshipped in Indo-Iranian areas. If this theory were to hold, then it would explain why there exist no evidence to date of Mithra slaying a bull in Iranian traditions.

Did Mithraic mysteries practice animal sacrifice?

The exact beliefs and practices of Mithraism are not well-known, as the religion did not leave behind any sacred texts. However, archaeological evidence suggests that Mithraism had a complex initiation process and a hierarchy of initiates. Even though the central icon of the religion was a representation of Mithras slaying a bull, it remains unclear whether Mithraic worship often involved animal sacrifice.

What did the Cult of Mithras emphasize?

Mithraism was an exclusive religion, only accepting male initiates, and it may have served as a form of male bonding among soldiers. Mithraism also had a strong emphasis on morality and ethics, with its followers striving for personal purity and self-discipline.

Why should written accounts by some early Christian authors about the Mithraic mysteries be taken with a pinch of salt?

Much of what we know about the Mithraic Mysteries don’t even come from the followers of the cult; instead they come from reliefs and sculptures found in the temples of the cult.

We also have a bit of knowledge of the mysterious cult kind courtesy of the works written by the early Christians of Rome. Regarding the latter, we must sometimes take with a grain of salt the generally accepted views we have about Mithraism. This is because Christians of that period completely loathed the cult, seeing Mithraic votaries as pagan worshipers.

The above also explains why many of the Mithras temples were razed to the ground after Christianity became the official religion of the empire.

Persecution of Pagans in the late Roman Empire

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