A recent article has prompted me to re-examine Mithraism and present it in detail to News24's readers.
History of Mithraism
The cult of Mithras was actually of very ancient lineage, traceable in one form or another through at least two thousand years. In origin it was the primordial sun-worship – the father of all religion. Iconography showed Mithras, in Phrygian cap and cloak, riding his fiery chariot across the sky. But it was also an eastern religion, reaching the Roman world from India via Persia.
Traditional hostility with Persia did not favour Rome adopting a religion of its enemies. This changed however in the 60s BC when Pompey’s legions first entered Syria. Mithraism had so well established itself in the Commagene, Armenia and eastern Anatolia that whole dynasties of kings had called themselves ‘Mithradates’ (‘justice of Mithra’).
Rome’s troops took to the ‘machismo’ faith, with its ceremonies of male-bonding and triumph over death, of self-control and resistance to sensuality. Legionaries took the cult with them into Palestine and back to Rome itself. More than four hundred Mithraic sites have been found throughout the empire, especially in Rome, and along the Danubian and Rhineland frontier zones.
Mithraism - How popular was this religion?
Dr Badi Badiozamani advances the theories of Iranian scholars and professors Zabih Behruz and Mohammad Moghadam. (1)
"The Parthians adopted Mithraism as their official religion; and up to the fourth century A.D., not only was it prevalent in Rome, but it was the official religion of the Roman Empire."
They also add, "It has been said that Mithraism was so strong that if the Roman Empire, and after it the Western world, had not become Christian it would have become Mithraic."
Why was an alternative sought?
Mithraism had excluded women entirely, causing Roman women to first explore Judaism, and then Christianity. Also, unlike Christianity, although membership was open to male slaves and freedmen, it made no special overtures towards the uneducated, downtrodden and marginal elements of society.
Mithraism was a religion chosen by the accomplished and socially ambitious. In its dark, partially subterranean chapels, the "mystery cult" emphasised the "masculine" virtues of courage, loyalty, stoicism, and – for soldiers, victory in battle.
Was Mithra born of a virgin?
The Iranian scholars quoted by Dr Badiozamani mention the following: "... Mehr (Mithra), was born of a virgin named Nahid Anahita ("immaculate") and ... the worship of Mithra, and Anahita, the virgin mother of Mithra was well-known in the Achaemenian period..." (1)
Dr Ali Amir-Moezzi states: "In Mithraism, as in popular Mazdaism, Anahid, the mother of Mithra, is a virgin." He also continues by saying, "...so there is analogy between the rock, a symbol of incorruptibility, giving birth to the Iranian god and the mother of that (same) one, Anahid, eternally virgin and young." (2)
Dr. Claas J. Beeker a professor in religious history called her (Anahita) "...the typical virgin". (3)
Anahita was also called the "Mother of the Lord" and the "Mother of God".
Did Mithraism or Christianity appear first in Rome?
In the gradual disappearance of Mithraism its temples were destroyed and churches were built over them. Dr Badiozamani mentions that the churches of St. Prisca and St. Clemente in Rome are good examples of this. This shows us that Mithraic temples existed before churches.
It is interesting to note that temples of Mithraism have also been found in England, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, and other European locations.
What is the significance of the slaying of the bull in Mithraism?
In Mithraism, the slaying of the Heavenly Bull, Mithra is essentially sacrificing himself, in order to save the world: the bull appears to signify the earth or mankind, and the implication is that Mithra, like Christ, overcame the world; but in the early Persian writings Mithra himself is the bull, and the god is thus sacrificing himself.
The shedding of the bull's blood was for the remission of sins. A holy table was set on which wine and bread and sometimes meat were placed symbolizing the blood and body of the bull (Mithra). (1)
Mithra is depicted on numerous monuments as surrounded by the 12 Zodiac signs. These 12 signs are sometimes portrayed as humans and represent the 12 companions of Mithra. (4)
Regardless of whether these ever really existed in human form, the twelve are portrayed as companions, as with many other sun gods.
Why is Sunday the new sabbath of Christianity?
The holy day for this sun god (Mithra) was, of course, Sunday.
Christians continued to follow the Jewish Sabbath until the fourth century, during the peak of Mithraism. Thereafter, we can only assume, they adopted the holy day of Mithraism as the religions intertwined.
Worth noting is that Mithra was born on December 25, called “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” which was incorporated into the church in the 4th century A.D. as the birthday of Christ. Again, notice that this was during the peak of Mithraism.
Why is there so much conflict regarding the history of Mithraism?
Dr Richard Gordon puts it so perfectly that I have to quote him on this: "In general, in studying Mithras, and the other Greco-oriental mystery cults, it is good practice to steer clear of all information provided by Christian writers: they are not "sources," they are violent apologists, and one does best not to believe a word they say, however tempting it is to supplement our ignorance with such stuff." (5)
In my personal opinion, the opinion of Iranian scholars on issues such as the validity of the virgin birth of Mithras should be regarded much higher than that of Western scholars, given that the religion originated from the East; Persia, to be precise.
It is erroneously asserted that because Mithraism was a "mystery cult" it did not leave any written record. In reality, much evidence of Mithra worship has been destroyed, including not only monuments, iconography and other artifacts, but also numerous books by ancient authors.
I hope the article covers the topic of Mithraism fairly well and clarifies any confusion introduced by Sean's article. I must also briefly apologise for horrendous layout of Part 5. I'm not sure why the text formatting was discarded during submission.
I have noted in some comments that I have been accused of being a former JW. I can honestly say that while I was a Christian I never associated with any so called "deviant" forms of Christianity, including JWs.
These articles are not intended to cause people to dump their religion overnight. It sets the ball in motion to produce "freethinkers". People who dare to question, and don't simply believe in god because of indoctrination from a young age.
Here follows the major references on which this article is based:
(1) Badi Badiozamani. Iran and America: Rekindling A Love Lost (P.96), 2005
(2) Amir-Moezzi, Mohammed Ali, La religion discre`te: croyances et pratiques spirituelles dans l'islam shi'ite, Paris: Libr. Philosophique Vrin, 2006.
(3) Bleeker, Claas J. The Sacred Bridge: Researches into the Nature and Structure of Religion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1963.
(4) Porphyry. Selects Works of Porphyry. London: T. Rodd, 1823.
(5) Gordon, Richard L., Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies, www.hums.canterbury.ac.nz/clas/ejms/faq.htm