Mithraism and Zoroastrianism, and the common threads in many religions

2014-01-09 00:00

THE exchange between Alleyn Diesel and Robert de Neef is refreshing and I feel that lubricating the mind in that direction is a pleasant diversion from the usual.

The study of alternate religions is particularly interesting because common threads are often found running through them. I have chosen two that are little known to the average person, although they have close connections with ones many are already well acquainted with. The first is Mithraism, practised in Rome at the time Christianity took root there, and the second is Zoroastrianism, a religion that existed in the region where Abraham originated and is still alive today, a span of some 3 500 years. Only Judaism and Hinduism have survived for longer.

The God concept is universal in all world religions, and is given a kaleidoscope of appearances, habits and familiarity, from personal to extremely remote, and from malign to benign. He uses lieutenants, prophets, avatars ad nauseum to get his point across, Mithras being the one in Mithraism, unsurprisingly enough.

Mithraism occurred all over Europe and the Middle East but was concentrated in Rome, the Roman military comprising most of its adherents. The ascent of the imperfect soul is important, and it strives to improve itself in the quest to become united with the father, or creator. A judgment will follow death. Initiates progress through a sequence of ascending stages (a process still followed in Freemasonry and the Rosicrucian Order) to reach the level of “father”.

In order to prove oneself and be accepted by the ruling divinity at the time of judgment, Mithras encourages the use of one’s talents together with a study of the mysteries from Raven through Bride, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Runner of the Sun, to Father. Personal discipline and effort is required, a practice followed by the priesthood in every religion in modern times, even if their faithful are a trite more relaxed in their efforts.

Obsession with the material world must be overcome to attain spiritual perfection, in effect the “salvation” offered by Christ, a connection which the early Christians apparently failed to make. They eventually stormed the subterranean temples beneath the streets of Rome used in Mithraism, slaughtering man, woman and child and destroying almost all of the statues and murals, leaving the bodies to rot and their bones to lie there through the millennia. Much detail of this religion was lost during this purge.

One remarkable surviving statue shows Mithras killing a bull with a sword. The point here was the shedding of its eternal blood, the bull representing perfection and procreation of life. Echoes of this ritual remain in Spain with a more remote connection in Zulu culture. Mithras alone could save the faithful. A rit­ual meal was taken, and possibly, but not certainly, the sipping of the blood bringing to mind the Christian Eucharist, while the Masai of East Africa regularly drink bovine blood mixed with milk.

The bovine figure, particularly in bull form, features consistently in the history of human kind: in India the female aspect represents the primal mother, the source of our being; the Israelites fashioned a golden calf to worship while in the Sinai wilderness; young Minoan men and women performed acrobatic somersaults over charging bulls in arenas before cheering crowds; the Minotaur of Greek mythology was part bull, part man; in Egypt, the god Marduk was the “bull calf” of the sun god Anu; the bull was prominent in Babylonian times, while the astrological heyday of the Egyptians when the pyramids were built, occurred in the age of the constellation Taurus. Finally, St Luke is depicted as a bull or ox in Romanesque and Gothic Christian architecture.

In the millennia BCE, the priesthood held total sway over the affairs of people. Zoroastrianism, emerging as a religion at roughly around 3 000 BCE, taught that people should make spiritual progress by their own effort (cf. The grace of God). It was only in about 1 200 BCE that their wise and benign God, Ahura Mazda, creator of all, selected Zoroaster to be his prophet to receive and teach his revelations, and he tried to swing the emphasis from priest-given to free-thinking individuals.

The religion covered the area between Greece and China, but was most important in the Persian Empire around 450 BCE. Religious disciples of all persuasions and traders travelled widely in those days. All of the cities were cosmopolitan and all the old languages were in common use, so everyone had the chance to catch up on the latest trends. The world was held to be basically good but was spoilt by the continuous uprising of evil in the form of Ahriman, the devil, in what is called “The Cosmic Battle”. In Zoroastrianism, he is not a fallen angel as that would imply that the creator was responsible for evil.

The success of people in experiencing their free will would be judged in the hereafter, irrespective of social standing, and hell had a corrective rather than punitive function. It was important to be charitable and leave offerings in the temple, and to pray privately. In spite of the pressures of the coming of Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism is still practised on a small scale today, possibly due to its ability to adapt.

Eventually, the world would be restored to perfection and Ahriman would be defeated, as he is in Hinduism by Vishnu as Kulki on a white horse, in Christianity at the battle of Armageddon when Christ rules for a 1 000 years, while the Buddhists see evil destroyed in the battle of Shambhala.

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