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The Cult of Mithras

Joe Bingham 2/22/2011

The cult of Mithras was part of a group of mystery cults that existed in ancient Rome. The word Mystery comes from the Greek word musterion, meaning religious secret, which refers to the secret initiation rites all of these cults practiced. The earliest artifacts recovered from the cult are dated around 90 AD Between 90 -500 AD, the cult spread throughout the empire spanning all the way to the black sea to the island of Britain1. There is no doubt that he cult was popular amongst the citizens.

The cult appealed to average roman citizens. In fact, the cult even inspired a poet to write a poem in honor of the god. The poem first letters spell out INVICTVS , which is Latin for
unconquered. It goes as follows: IF indeed a go, Invictus was rock born Now which came first? Here rock has Vanquished god: for who created it? If a god, by the theft he could not live; yet Cattle-thief is the name he goes by. Terraneous he was born, a monster Vulcans son hes like, old Cacus, who Stole anothers beast, hid them in a cave2

No ruling elite are recorded to have been a members of the cult, nor any equestrians with the exception of those serving in the military. Mithras was very popular amongst the soldieries as evidenced by artifacts found all the way up in Britain.3 Also, the slave population

1 2

(Clauss) (Clauss) 78 3 (Clauss) 33

represented a large number of its members. The cult in many ways was like an exclusive club where slaves and citizens came together to worship a common god.

The sacred narrative, or story, of Mithras is derived from incomplete knowledge based on inscriptions that act like picture books. Additionally, many of the stories differ depending on their origin. Despite this confusion, what is believed to be the backbone of the story can still be reconstructed.4 The story of Mithras begins with his rock-birth. Mithras birth is usually depicted as him coming out of rocks naked holding a torch and a dagger. The rocks represent the cosmos out of which Mithras was born. The torch symbolizes light which Mithras sheds upon the world. And the dagger symbolizes life which he creates when he later slays the bull.5 The second image that is universal to all of the cult reliefs is that of Mithras slaying the bull.

The bull is closely related to the moon in Greco-Roman mythology. The slaying of the bull is representative of the lunar cycle. Some pictures depict Mithras as wrestling the bull into submission, pulling the bulls by the horns, then deforming the bulls back so as to look like the crescent of the moon. The poet Lactantius Placidus describes the image:

(Mithras) grips the bulls horns with his two hands. The interruption of this concerns LunaIn these lines (the poet) reveals the secret of the mysteries of the sun. For the Sun (-god) sits on the bull and twist his horns, so as to teach Luna by dint of his strength that she is not so great as he, and inferior.
4 5

(Clauss) 62 (Clauss) 64

This vivid account of Mithras overcoming the bull or moon symbolizes the cyclical nature of death and rebirth.6 On both sides of Mithras, two men holding torches can be seen. In some reliefs, the man to the right of Mithras is seen holding his torch upside down. The overall image portrays Mithras, the god of light, bringing forth life from his slaying of the bull. Claus a perforsor of ancient history describe the narrative as being, a unique event, which yet symbolized all of creation. Out of death of the bull new life burgeons: and this new life, which is true, real life, is owed to Mithras alone.7

All worship took place within the mithraeum or temples. The mithraeum was the place of worship for the followers of Mithras. Theses shrines were located throughout the Roman Empire. There unique design allows one to identify them readily from other buildings. Though individual features and modes of construction differed, all of the temples shared a main room flanked on both sides by elevated seating.8

Another aspect of the mithraeum was the cosmic symbols imparted into their designs. The west side of these temples seemed to stand in the dark, while the east side stood in the light. Additionally, the relief of Mithras slaying the bull was held in the light side of the temple.9

6 7

(Clauss) 82 (Clauss) 101 8 (Clauss) 46 9 (Mary) 285

The symbols seem to point toward the cyclic nature of life and death and light and dark, which are central to the cults sacred narrative.

Little is known about the rituals of the cult of Mithras. Sources of information come from other cult practices and through Christian critics who wrote about the cult s initiation rites. Most cults practiced initiation rites to weed out those who may not be dedicated. The rites also served to make the cult exclusive to those who belonged. The rites can also be viewed in a metaphorical sense such as being reborn into the cult.10 The cult also performed other rituals such as prayer.

Only one document remains that recount the prayers of the cult and its authenticity is debated by scholars.11 But, it is certain that the cult did practice prayer. Similar to other cults during this time, the cult of Mithras practices a ritual meal. The ritual closely resembles the Christian Eucharist. In fact, one early Christian critic accused the cult of Mithras of stealing the practice. 12 The Mithras cult consisted of a hierarchy. All members were believed to be of priests in a hierarchal order. The ranks from lowest to highest were: Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-runner, and Father.13 These names are believed to be symbolic. For example,

10 11

(Clauss) 102 (Clauss) 106 12 (Clauss) 108 13 (Clauss) 131

ravens, in context of the Roman world, are believed to be able to communicate with the gods. The ravens can be considered to be on the boundary between outsiders and full initiates.14 The romans liked excitement as can be witnessed by the great monuments that were erected for the purposes of blood sports. So, in the case of religion, the romans perhaps sought excitement in there worship as well. Mystery cults like Mithras offered the people a sense of novelty, and an escape from boredom. A unique feature of the cult of Mithras is the small size of their temples indicating a close bond among its members. The cult could have appealed to people looking for a sense of community. Learning what appealed to the romans gives great insight into their inner life. In conclusion, the cult of offered the people an explanation for their existence. The narrative explained the origins of life through Mithras slaying of the bull. The death of the bull in turn gave life. The archetypical story is common to many religions including Christianity. Interestingly, Christianity competed with the cult of Mithras and eventually flourished while the cult of Mithras died out. I wonder how the world would be different if instead of Jesus we worshiped Mithras.


(Mary) 285

Works Cited
Clauss, Manfred. The Roman Cult of Mithras. NY: Routlege, 2000. Mary, Beard. Religions of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Wardman, Alan. Religion and StateCraft Among the Romans. London: John Hopkins University Press, 1982.