You feel the cold stone clack beneath the unsure steps of your sandaled feet. A few moments ago, you were beneath the warm breeze of an early summer’s evening. Being a young legionnaire stationed in Southern Gaul, known for its pleasant climate and rolling seascapes, it had not been your first. Yet, this night, you stood at the mouth of a descending basement surrounded by military peers. You had sought this out of your own accord but that still didn’t help the growing tightness you felt in your chest. The more you descended, the more the earthen chamber absorbed the evening’s warmth, leaving you in a profound chill.
Eventually, you made it to the chamber, a modest room that would not fit many more than were already present. Under the dim orange glow of candles, you begin to take in your surroundings. You see ornate symbols whose meaning you couldn’t even begin to decipher as the already initiated had kept tight reigns on the inner mysteries. In the dimly lit corners of the room, you spy a leering figure, the well-sculpted ferocity of its lion head contrasting with the Apollonian grace of its human torso. This unsettles you and, in panic, you look up to break eye contact with its visage. You look up and see the ceiling had been painted over with deep blues and faux stars, representative of the heavens above. A subtle sense of peace washes over you when you remember how beautiful the night sky was before your descent. Your attention is drawn to the centerpiece of the chamber, a beautiful fresco of a powerful youth dressed in the fashion of the Easterners slaying a titanic bull. Representations of animals are present around the dying beast as are two figures holding tools that you can’t seem to make out through the dim lighting. You hear words punctuate the almost oppressive silence of the chamber as your initiation begins, words that have sadly been lost to the sands of time.
While a number of the features of this recreation such as the descent into the basement, the cosmic décor, the military nature of its adherents and its iconography is backed up with a significant body of archaeological and literary evidence, the conclusion alludes to one of the main underlying themes of the ancient cult of Mithras. This theme is that of secrecy as, due to its nature as a mystery cult, the rituals and catechisms of its faithful remain an enigma to this day. This being said, it's not in the nature of academia to leave a stone unturned and quite literally so in the case of archaeology. Hence, decades of research have done well to shed some light on this movement despite the deliberate obfuscation of its congregation.
The History of the cult of Mithras:
While most known for its presence in the Roman Empire, the origins of Mithras as a worshipped deity originate much further east. Before the advent of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persians had worshipped a pantheon of deities with a god referred to as “Mithra” at its head. This Persian origin is also attested to by the Romans themselves who had occasionally referred to their iteration of the cult as “the mysteries of the Persians.”
Mithra was first and foremost deeply tied to the concept of obligation and oaths with his invocation indicating the sanctification of a contract between two or more parties. An example of this being referred to in a treaty written in cuneiform between the Hittites and Mitanni that dates back to the 15th Century BCE that specifically referred to Mithra as a god of oaths. Even further east, the Indian Vedic texts referenced the god Mitra who signified mediation, communication and good accord between different parties. Taking a more etymological perspective, the Iranian Mithra and its Sanskrit version, Mitra, both seem to come from a common linguistic ancestor in the Indo-Iranian word mitrás that directly translates to “agreement” or “covenant.” Mithra’s divine mandate also extended to the sun with this aspect of the deity being emphasized in the Helleno-Roman interpretation of the god as well as kings, war and justice. Moving towards literary evidence, hymns dedicated to the old gods following the rise of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia called Yashts depict Mithra as a solar deity in eternal contention with the forces of evil and darkness, a guardian of sacred oaths and the defender of the moral and righteous.
This deity and its following would be generally obscure in the Roman world up until the early 2nd Century and even less so in the Hellenic world who had always seen the Persians antagonistically. This being said, following the year 136 CE, the god’s renown would explode in the Roman Empire with hundreds of dedications to Mithras being found dating back to this period. While earlier academics argued that this could have been due to a direct link between the Persian cult of Mithra and the Mithraic mysteries of Rome, the more contemporary consensus seem to agree that Roman Mithraism was probably a novel creation that, while taking inspiration and symbolic reference from the Persian cult of Mithra and interpreted it through the lens of Platonism, it did not have any notable direct connection with said ancestor. With the historical context having been established, we may now move on to the glue that held together most mystery cults of the era, the mythical narrative that informed the ontology of its faithful.
The narrative of the inner mysteries:
At the core of the Mithraic mysteries stood a creation myth that symbolically informed the worldview of the faithful of Mithras. According to the fragmentary evidence that has been pieced together over decades of archaeological research, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun and solar deity of the Romans, ordered Mithras through the medium of a raven to sacrifice a white bull. While reluctant, as seen with most reliefs depicting Mithras turning his face to avoid seeing the act, he carried out the order diligently.
Upon the bull’s death, the body of the creature turned into the moon while Mithras’ cloak transformed into the heavens above complete with astral bodies such as the planets and the stars. The blood of the bull, its tail and its seed came to form the plants, trees and beasts of the earth with its death also putting time in motion with the alternation of days and nights, the shifting of seasons and the cycle of the moon.
The animals of the earth are normally physically depicted in Mithraic reliefs with specific reference being given to serpents, scorpions, ravens and lions who were symbolically important for Mithraic rituals as can be seen in their presence in the naming conventions of Mithraic hierarchy. These are also symbolic of the four elements with the raven symbolizing air, the serpent earth, the lion fire and the mixing bowl that caught the seed of the bull water. Following this event, referred to as the Tauroctony, the sun god and Mithras partake in a banquet together. After eating bread and meat and drinking wine, Sol Invictus offered Mithras a place by his side on his solar chariot. Mithras accepted the offer and rode with the Sol Invictus through the sky and towards the ends of the Earth.
Mithras is also commonly represented as having come out of a stone already in his youth and armed with a dagger and torch.
The Worship of the Roman Mithras:
With the inner mysteries brought to light, we may now explore how the Roman followers of Mithras used rites and rituals to reenact this narrative. As referenced in the introduction, the places of worship of this mystery cult were normally subterranean spaces illuminated by candles or torch lights due to their chthonic and windowless nature. They always contained a well and normally a system of underground passages that were used during rituals and initiations. In urban settings, Mithraea normally consisted of a converted apartment basement whereas in more rural settings an excavated cave or otherwise natural formation would have been used instead with these temples being remarkably common throughout the Empire and more so in the Western half around areas of military activity such as Britannia, Gaul and Northern Africa with the main center of significance being the mother city of Rome itself. Scholars such as David Ulansey noted that astronomical symbolism was a very common and possibly even required feature of the Mithraea with archaeological examples such as the ceiling of the Caesarea Maritima Mithraeum heavily implied to have been painted over to resemble a starry night sky due to the residual remnants of blue paint. This is also alluded to in the literary records of contemporaries with the Roman philosopher, Porphyry (234 AD - 305 AD) stating that the Mithraea depicted “an image of the world.”
In terms of demographics, military personnel formed a significant but not exclusive component of the Mithraea as other professions were also present such as merchants and bureaucrats. Interestingly enough, a considerable number of freedmen and even slaves also were present. The cult seemed to be exclusive to men and there did not seem to be an overarching hierarchy between the Mithraea even as the internal lodge was stratified according to the rank of initiation.
These ranks, in order of hierarchy, were corax (Raven), nymphus (Bridegroom), miles (Soldier), leo (Lion), Perses (Persian), heliodromus (Courier of the Sun) and finally, pater (Father) with symbolic hints seeming to relate ascent up the ranks with the ascent of the soul after death. Costumes were hinted to be a feature of the rituals with examples including masks for the animalistic ranks and a dress for the rank of nymphus and each rank was symbolically attached to one of the seven planetary gods. There is also a body of evidence for the fact that there may have been moral guidelines adhered to by the ranked initiates with Porphyry alluding to the fact that members that had reached the leo grade must keep their hands pure from anything that gives harm whereas Tertullian recounts that Mithraist members of the army were legally allowed to refuse the wearing of celebratory headgear due to the initiation oath taken that only Mithras was worthy of the crown. Mithraists were also bound by an oath of secrecy and there seems to have been a degree of ritualistic encryption with initiates required to know answers to specific catechisms. However, little is known about the initiation rituals themselves although references to baptisms, blindfolding, ordeals, chastisements and ceremonial passwords are evident in some Mithraea.
Other than the tauroctony and the banquet scene, one last and deeply mysterious aspect of the Mithraic cult is the presence of a lion-headed figure that was cryptically referred to as Arimanius in dedicatory inscriptions. The name is a Latinized form of the Zoroastrian divine antagonist of all that is good, Ahriman. Given the enigmatic nature of this figure and the lack of concrete evidence in reference to his identity, the scholarly consensus is quite divided on the “leontocephalus” with him being identified with the Zoroastrian god Ahriman, Vedic Aryaman, the Helleno-Roman Chronos/Cronus, the late-Zoroastrian Zurvan or even the Gnostic Aion. While his identity remains a mystery, academic consensus is generally in agreement that he is associated with entropy, the passage of time and the change of the seasons.
While this article has attempted to serve as a useful introduction to the mystery cult of Mithraism, it must always be remembered that for the most part, we can only speculate on the inner working of the Mithraea. While the young legionnaire in Gaul, in the beginning, may have been a simulacrum based on what little we know of this faith, it seems that the secrets of this fascinating organization remain known only to them and tantalizingly distant from us in the modern-day. At least for now.
Roger Beck, "The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998 (1998), pp. 115-128.
Roger Beck, "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp.2002-2115.
Roger Beck, Beck on Mithraism: Collected works with new essays. Ashgate, 2004.
Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras: the god and his mysteries, Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 198. ISBN 0-415-92977-6.
Richard Gordon, Frequently asked questions about the cult of Mithras.
John Hinnells (ed.), Proceedings of The First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press (1975).
Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras: ein persisch-römischer Mysterienkult, 1994.
Robert Turcan, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000.
David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1989.