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Mithra ("Mithras" in Latin) was a god who was worshipped as a Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah and a solar deity.

Mithra is a god of light, a life-death-rebirth deity, such as Isis, the resurrected Jesus Christ or the Persephone/Demeter cult of the Eleusinian mysteries. Mithra and Isis were the major competitors to Christianity in the first three centuries of the Common Era.

The cult of Mithra in Persia and India is ancient, for there are references to Mithra in the Avestas and in the Vedic hymns. With the rise of Zoroastrianism, which elevated Ahuramazda to supreme deity, Mithra, the protector of truth and the enemy of error, gained stature. Mithra occupied an intermediate position as the greatest of the yazatas, the beings created by Ahuramazda to aid in the destruction of evil and the administration of the world. He was thus a deity of the realms of air and light, and, by transfer to the moral realm, the god of truth and loyalty. As the enemy of darkness and evil spirits, he protected souls, accompanying them to paradise (a Persian concept and even a Persian word), and was thus a redeemer. Because light is accompanied by heat, he was the god of vegetation and increase; he rewarded the good with prosperity and annihilated the bad. As an action god of armies and the champion of heroes, he appealed to the professional soldiers of the Roman legions, who carried his cult to Iberia, Britain, the German frontiers and Dacia.

Animals and birds were sacrificed and libations poured to him, and prayers were addressed to him by devotees who had purified themselves by ablution and repeated flagellation.

As a god who gave victory, Mithra was prominent in the official cult of the first Persian empire, where the seventh month and the sixteenth day of other months were consecrated to him. His worship spread first with the empire of the Persians throughout Asia Minor, then throughout the empire of Alexander and his successors. In Mesopotamia, Mithra was easily identified with Shamash, god of the sun. In the Hellenized cultures he could be identified with Apollo and Helios. Greek sculptors of the school at Pergamum in Asia Minor in the 2nd century BCE fixed the iconic bas-relief imagery of Mithra Taurocthonos, Mithra the 'bull-slayer.' But the cult of Mithras never caught on in the Greek homeland. In Egypt too Mithra had competition from long-established local life-death-rebirth cults.

Mithraism arrived fully mature at Rome with the return of the legions from the east in the 1st century BCE. The cult of Mithras began to attract attention at Rome about the end of the 1st century A.D. Statius mentions the typical Mithraic relief in his Thebaid (Book i. 719,720), ca. A.D. 80 CE; Plutarch's Life of Pompey also makes it clear that Mithra's worship was well known.

By ca 200 CE, Mithraism had spread rapidly through the army, and among traders and slaves The German frontiers afford most evidence of its prosperity. At Rome, the 3rd century emperors encouraged Mithraism, because of the support which it afforded to the divine nature of monarchs. Mithras, identified with Sol Invictus at Rome, thus became the giver of authority and victory to the imperial house. From the time of Commodus, who participated in its mysteries, its supporters were to be found in all classes. Its importance at Rome may be judged from the abundance of monumental remains: more than 75 pieces of sculpture, 100 inscriptions, and ruins of temples and chapels in all parts of the city and its suburbs.

The beginning of the downfall of Mithraism dates from A.D. 275, when Dacia was lost to the empire, and the invasions of the northern peoples resulted in the destruction of temples along a great stretch of frontier, the natural stronghold of the cult. The aggression of Christianity also was now more effective. The emperors, however, favored the cult, which was the army's favorite until Constantine destroyed its hopes.

The reign of Julian and the usurpation of Eugenius renewed the hopes of its devotees, but the victory of Theodosius in 394 may be considered the end of its formal public existence.

Mithraism still survived in certain cantons of the Alps in the 5th century, and clung to life with more tenacity in its Eastern homelands. Its eventual successor was Manichaeism, which afforded a refuge to those mystics who had been shaken in faith, but not converted, by the polemics of the Church against their religion.


Mithra was born of a mother-rock by a river under a tree. He came into the world with the Phrygian cap on his head (hence his designation as Pileatus, the Capped One), and a knife in his hand. It is said that shepherds watched his birth.

The hero-god first gives battle to the sun, conquers him, crowns him with rays and makes him his eternal friend and fellow; nay, the sun becomes in a sense Mithra's double, or again his father, but Helios Mithras is one god. Then follows the struggle between Mithra and the bull, the central motif of Mithraism. Ahura Mazda had created the wild bull (see aurochs), which Mithra pursued, overcame, and dragged into his cave. This wearisome journey with the struggling bull towards the cave is the symbol of man's troubles on earth. Unfortunately, the bull escapes from the cave, whereupon Ahura Mazda sends a crow with a message to Mithra to find and slay it. Mithra reluctantly obeys, and plunges his dagger into the bull as it returns to the cave. Strange to say, from the body of the dying bull proceeds all wholesome plants and herbs that cover the earth, from his spinal marrow the corn, from his blood the vine, etc.

The power of evil sends his unclean creatures to prevent or poison these productions but in vain. From the bull proceed all useful animals, and the bull, resigning itself to death, is transported to the heavenly spheres. Man is now created and subjected to the malign influence of Ahriman in the form of droughts, deluges, and conflagrations, but is saved by Mithra.

Finally man is well established on earth and Mithra returns to heaven. He celebrates a last supper with Helios and his other companions, is taken in his fiery chariot across the ocean, and now in heaven protects his followers. For the struggle between good and evil continues in heaven between the planets and stars, and on earth in the heart of man.

Mithra is the Mediator (Mesites) between God and man. This function first arose from the fact that as the light-god he is supposed to float midway between the upper heaven and the earth. Likewise a sun-god, his planet was supposed to hold the central place amongst the seven planets. The moral aspect of his mediation between god and man cannot be proven to be ancient. As Mazdean dualists the Mithraists were strongly inclined towards asceticism; abstention from food and absolute continence seemed to them noble and praiseworthy, though not obligatory. They battled on Mithra's side against all impurity, against all evil within and without. They believed in the immortality of the soul, sinners after death were dragged off to hell; the just passed through the seven spheres of the planets, through seven gates opening at a mystical word to Ahura Mazda, leaving at each planet a part of their lower humanity until, as pure spirits, they stood before God.

At the end of the world Mithra will descend to earth on another bull, which he will sacrifice, and mixing its fat with sacred wine he will make all drink the beverage of immortality. He will thus have proved himself Nabarses, i.e. "never conquered".

Holidays and rituals and other stuff

Mithraism celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, similar to the Christian Easter. They held services on Sunday. Rituals included a Eucharist and six other sacraments that corresponded to later Christian rituals. Some individuals who are skeptical about stories of Jesus' life suspect that Christianity may have appropriated many details of Mithraism in order to make their religion more acceptable to Paganss. St. Augustine even stated that the priests of Mithra worshipped the same God as he did.

See also: mithraism

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