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The Nature of Mithras
When the Aryan tribes swept down from the Russian steppes they brought their gods with them. Some time between 2000 and 1500 B.C.E., these tribes entered India and Iran, bringing with them one particular deity whom they called respectively Mitra, or Mithra.
A horse-born branch of the Aryan tribe which conquered a Middle Eastern kingdom, actually named their new empire after the deity. These people, the Mitanni, gave us the first written reference to Mitra in a treaty between themselves and the Hittites. Signed about 1375 B.C.E., the treaty calls on divine witnesses to pledge its terms. The Hittites called on the sun god. The Mitanni called on Mitra.
Mitra had been worshipped by the Iranians for centuries when Zarathustra (we call him Zoroaster, the Greek version of his name) founded the first revealed religion. Zarathustra announced the primacy of Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who was served by the Amentas Spenta, or bounteous immortals. Among these was Mithra, whom Ahura Mazda declared to be "as worthy of worship as myself." Thus the Zarathustrian reform did not replace Mithra in the Iranian Pantheon. It merely changed his role.
Mithra may also have been worshipped by the Mani. Some branches of Manicheism identified Mithra as the ruler of the second or third emanation (an occultist would say "ray," "aeon," or "sepheroth"). But whether there were actual rites of worship dedicated to him or whether he simply functioned as an anthropomorphic principle is impossible to say.
In the Roman Empire, this same deity was called Mithras, and was the central figure of a mystery religion that for almost five hundred years vied with Christianity for dominance. Roman Mithrasism differed so markedly, however, from other traditions that some scholars have claimed Mithras to be a unique deity, distinct from Mitra or Mithra. Although this book deals primarily with Mithrasism in its Roman form, it will demonstrate that there is good reason to connect the Roman Mithras with his other forms in other traditions.
In the Beginning was a Word
The names Mitra, Mithra, and Mithras all derive from the Indo-European root "Mihr," which translates both as "friend" and as "contract." While both translations are correct however, neither gives a full account of the word. "Mihr" itself derives from "mei," an Indo-European root meaning "exchange." But Aryan society did not use the word "exchange" to describe a transaction.
Ancient societies were hierarchical. Neither the concept of an exchange between equals after which a relationship ended (our meaning of contract), nor the concept of an open-ended exchange between equals (our meaning of friendship) were contained in the original meaning of the words "mihr" or "mei." (For our concept of friendship, the Rg Veda uses the word "sakhi.") The friendship or contract offered by Mihr, or Mitra as he became known, was an exchange between unequal partners with Mitra as a just lord. Like any feudal relationship, this "friendship" imposed certain obligations on both sides. Mitra oversaw the affairs of his worshippers. He established justice for them. In return, his worshippers had to be upright in their dealings with others. Mitra was thus "lord of the contract" (a title frequently applied to him), more powerful and knowledgeable than his worshippers (a valuable attribute for a god). He stood between parties as a judge, upholding the sacredness of the exchange, the "mei."
This concept of a "god of the exchange" naturally led to a doctrine of reciprocal responsibility: those who follow his rule the god protects; those who defy it by deceitful or dishonest action he punishes. For a god to be effective in this role, he had to have the power to know what was right and enforce it. Moreover there had to be a means of making the will of the god known. This was done by the ordeal of fire.
In a dispute over a contract, a man could choose to run through a narrow strip of earth with bonfires on either side. If he lived, he was said to have been spared by Mitra and was considered innocent. In later eras, molten copper was poured over his breast. If he lived, he was declared to have passed the test. Impossible as it sounds to us, there were occasions when people did choose to go through the agony, and emerged vindicated. But the god of the Aryans had other aspects, too.
A god who enforces the contract must know what really happens between men talking in private. To see things from a distance in a primitive society, gaining such a vantage point was seen as a function of distance. A person on a mountain sees more than one in a valley. A god in the sky sees more than a person on a mountain. Thus, Mitra, already a god of fire, became a god of the stars and sun. The stars became his eyes, so he came to be called the god of ten thousand eyes. His hearing was similarly exalted. Whether his followers prayed in a shout or a whisper Mitra heard. He also became associated with cattle and was portrayed as the ruler or giver of broad pastures. As time went on, other attributes came to be associated with Mitra as he appeared in different traditions in different places.
The Indian Mitra
Our primary source of information on the Indian god Mitra is the Rg Veda which, although written down about 1500 B.C E., may have been composed some three hundred years earlier. Mitra was originally an important deity to the Indians. But since the reformation and the primacy of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, he has ceased to be actively worshipped in the Hindu tradition.
In Vedic references. Mitra is normally mentioned with a partner, Varuna. In fact there are only a dozen references to either god alone, but over a hundred of the two together. I believe that, like the Nasati, Mitra and Varuna may originally have been twins. This would explain why the two gods are so similar, why they are mentioned together, and why they are linked to paired principles. Mitra is identified with fire, earth, the color red, morning and day, and the right-hand side; Varuna with water, heaven, evening and night, and the left-hand side. Just as Mitra had the ordeal by fire, so Veruna had the ordeal by water. When a man was accused of breaking an oath he would immerse himself under water by holding another man's legs. An arrow was shot as he went under and a swift man was sent to fetch the arrow where it landed. If the runner returned before the man drowned, Varuna had spared him.
The sort of duality Mitra-Varuna displays is an important part of Vedic thought. Between them, the two gods encompass the universe and rule it in the same way they rule the affairs of men. That is, just as they bring order to the world of men, so they bring order to the functions of the universe. To break the law of the god, then, is akin to breaking a natural law. Like his Aryan tribal counterpart, Mitra is a god who sees both righteousness and transgression and gives benefit or retribution accordingly.
Thus Mitra's eye is the sun and he sets it on its course. For this reason prayers are addressed to him at sunrise and his blessing is asked for the coming day. Moreover, while Mitra often punishes transgressors with sickness, particularly leprosy, he is not a terrible god. In fact. Mitra is the first god credited with recognizing and rewarding true penance. He will punish sin but, for those who truly repent, he will also forgive it.
Other features of the tribal god were retained by Mitra in the Vedic tradition, for instance his association with cattle. Cattle were sacrificed to him. On his worshippers he bestowed gifts, including wide pastures, large herds, male children, and beautiful women. And like Mithra and Mithras, Mitra was a chariot-driving god. Mitra was also associated with a plant named Soma whose juices, often mixed with cows' milk, produced intoxication. The plant was called the "averter of death." and was used to stimulate astral travel to allow the priests of Mitra to see beyond the veil of death. In the act of producing the drink, the plant was described as being "sacrificed."
There is a myth attached to the crushing of the Soma plant. In it the gods conspire to kill their fellow deity Soma. Mitra refuses, saying his name means "friend." He is told the other gods will kill Soma anyway, but that without the milk from Mitra's cattle to produce the magic drink, benefit of this death will not be widely distributed. Reluctantly, Mitra takes part in the plot. Soma is killed and, through his death, others become immortal. But Mitra's cattle are upset with his part in the plot and confront the god. He explains to them the murder was not his doing.
This myth is sometimes identified as the origin of the bull-slaying central to the worship of the Roman Mithras. It depends on an astrological association of both plants and cattle to the Moon. While this is possible, the slaying of the bull may have come from any one of a number of sources—if indeed it can be said to have only one source.
The Iranian Mithra and Zarathustra
As the Aryan tribes swept south, they split into two major branches, the Indians in the east and the Iranis in the west. Both worshipped the god of the contract in similar ways. Like the Indians, the Iranis sacrificed cattle to Mithra. They invoked him to preserve the sanctity of the contract. They associated him with fire. And like both Indian and Roman worshippers, the Iranis concluded contracts before fires so that they might be made in the presence of Mithra. Like Mitra, Mithra saw all things. The Avestan Yast (hymn) dedicated to him describes him as having a thousand ears, ten thousand eyes, and as never sleeping. And like Mitra, Mithra has a partner Apam Nepat, whose name means Grandson of Waters. (Note that the same elemental connection of fire and water is maintained as in the Indian tradition.)
Mithra was a moral god, upholding the sanctity of the contract even when that contract was made with one who was sure to break it. His primary responsibility was to the Tightness of the action. In this he stood above the various national gods of the time, who had little function other than to look after the welfare of the state and its wealthiest members. In fact, Mithra was the first such moral deity, and stands above the notions of many worshippers of many gods today.
Mithra was judge not only the contracts between individuals but the pledges given between nations. He set boundaries between neighbors and nations alike, for he was still the lord of the wide pastures. In this he was a supranational god—a god who for the first time in history put the value of truth above the interests of his own cult, his own followers, his own nation.
Like Mitra, Mithra was still the god who saw and heard all, having a thousand ears, a thousand eyes, and ten thousand spies. But the Iranian Mithra is a warrior god while Mitra of India was not. Countries who broke their word faced the wrath of Mithra. Mithra is frequently called "the one who calls people to account" and his punishments are both detailed and specific.
Why should Mithra be more warlike than Mitra? Possibly because the Iranis had no equivalent to the Indians' Indra. Without a specific god of national conquest some of Indra's warlike nature was transferred to Mithra. But where Indra was simply a god of national conquest, Mithra had that additional and essentiell dimension of morality.
Mithra punishes the impious. Frequently this is by diseases such as leprosy. But he has more physical punishments. His chariot of war in which he sets out to fight evil is drawn by four horses. He has two companions with him in this fight: Sraosha (obedience to the law or feudal obligations) and Rashnu (Truest, the lord of the ordeal). With him, too, is Verethraghna, or Victory, who can take the form of a boar, the wind, or a golden-horned bull. In this chariot Mithra conquers the armies of evil. The description of the chariot lists the various axes, spears, and other weapons that it carried, making it a fearsome token of Mithra's invincible power.
The Iranis had a deep reverence for Mithra, as is proved by their reception of the prophet, Zarathustra. Zarathustra is the most important person in the recorded history of religion, bar none. The first man to promulgate a divinely revealed religion, he influenced the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Mithrasism, Islam, northern (Mahayana) Buddhism, Manicheism, and the pagan Norse myths. Over half the world has accepted a significant portion of his precepts under the guise of one or another of these faiths.
At the age of about forty Zarathustra, a priest in the traditional Irani rites, received a revelation. In it, the many gods of the Iranis were supplanted by a new deity who was the supreme deity of the Good. This deity became known as Ahura Mazda, or the "Wise Lord." Opposed to Ahura Mazda was Aingra Mainyu or Ahriman, the 'Angry Spirit," the chief deity of evil. Both deities had underlings and partners. The chief allies of Ahura Mazda were the "Amentas Spenta." Created by the "Wise Lord," these "Bounteous" or "Holy Immortals" included Mithra.
There is a hymn to Mithra in the Zarathustrian holy work, the Avesta. It is a beautiful hymn, or Yast, and Ilya Gershevitch is right to lament that it is not more widely known. In it, Ahura Mazda addresses the prophet Zarathustra, saying that when he created Mithra, he made him as worthy of worship as himself. This accolade is given to no other Amenta Spenta or Yazata. Historians have argued that this distinction indicates only that the cult of Mithra was so important that Zarathustra had to give its god special concessions to convert its members. Some have even argued the popularity from the concessions. But there is another theological reason for the special attention given to Mithra by Zarathustra.
Mitra-Varuna was a fire-water duality. Mithra-Apam Nepat, was also a fire-water duality which predated the revelation of Zarathustra. The symbol Zarathustra chose for the good, and for the natural order of things he conceived good to be, was purifying fire. This took both a physical and a spiritual form.
So it was natural that the god of the fire ordeal, who set the affairs of men and the natural universe in order, should be considered supreme among Ahura Mazda's creations.
Mithra is a pacifier of lands in turmoil and a supporter of government regularity. He supports authority but opposes governments which are vexatious of the people. In this he is a judge of kings, supporting those who keep their word and reign justly, while overthrowing those who do not.
Like Mitra, Mithra was associated with the ritual consumption of a plant, the Haoma, which recalls the Indian Soma. Again, the Haoma plant was crushed and its juices drunk as a ritual reminder of a time of immortality in a primeval religious past. Worshippers hoped to take part in that immortality again, as Zarathustra promised. This sacrament of the bread and wine made flesh and blood, Zarathustra established as early as 650 B.C.E., and the Mithrasians continued the practice.
Mithra is a much more fully developed image than the rather ethereal Mitra. Unlike the Indian god, we actually have a relief of the Iranian deity. Reconstruction shows Mithra shaking hands with King Antiochus. It is Mithra's attire, however, that is important to the current study. Mithra wears the Phrygian cap, Persian trousers, and a cape. His hat is star speckled (from textual evidence his chariot is similarly decorated). Rays of light emerge from Mithra's head much like a halo. His choke collar is a serpent. This image, or one very like it, will appear again in Rome.
Mithras, the Roman Mystery God
There is great controversy over the connection between the Roman Mithras and the Iranian Mithra. In fact, some scholars like David Ulansey and Michael P. Speidel have argued that they are distinct deities. Ulansey maintains that Mithras is a reformed Perseus, while Speidel claims that he is a reformed Orion.
Part of the problem is what we have to work with. For the Indian Mitra and the Iranian Mithra, we rely almost exclusively on textual evidence. For the Indian Mitra we have theRg Veda, For Mithra we have the Yasts (hymns) of the Zarathustrian holy work. The Avesia, and the inscriptions of kings such as Darius the Great. For the god of the Aryan tribes, we have only anthropological evidence or reconstructions from lingual drift.
For the Roman Mithras, however, we have almost no textual evidence except some inscriptions dedicating sacrifices, some graffiti on temple walls, and some explanatory notes in murals which have survived. There is also some contemporary polemic from Christian writers (like Tertullian) or the comments of pagan observers (like Porphory).
Apart from that, however, what we know of Mithras must be gained from archeology. Excavations of his temples have given us murals, statues, mosaics, altars, and even the floor plans of the temples. But no book remains. The problem has been likened to trying to understand Christianity with nothing more than the Old Testament and the Medieval cathedrals from which to work.
The founder of Mithrasian studies, Franz Cumont, believed in a very close relationship between the Roman and the Iranian religions. So close, in fact, that he argued the Iranians carried out certain rites because the Roman Mithrasians performed them. Such was his authority in the field that his view was not questioned for over forty years.
More recently, a number of scholars have raised doubts about this relationship. How, for example, could the two religions have cooperated? After all, the Roman and Persian Empires were deadly enemies. It would seem unlikely that their priests would get together to work out a consistent theology.
Once Cumont's theory came under question a wide variety of alternative theories were suggested, for instance, those of Ulansey and Speidel mentioned above. It has been suggested we've found no literature of Mithras simply because there wasn't any: the religion contained no secrets, no theology, and was in effect little more than an excuse for drunken revelry. The long-accepted Mithras-Christ rivalry has also been cast into doubt. It has been suggested the mystery religion was no more than a backwater of pagan thought. It has even been suggested Christianity came first and the followers of Mithras imitated Christianity, though history proved that untrue 2000 years ago.
Excerpted from Mithras by D. Jason Cooper. Copyright © 1996 D. Jason Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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Chapter 1. The Nature of Mithras
Chapter 2. The Nature of the Cult
Chapter 3. The Mithraeum
Chapter 4. The Icon in the East
Chapter 5. The Degrees of Initiation
Chapter 6. The Rituals of Mithras
Chapter 7. The Life and Myths of Mithras