Mithra, Mitra, Mehe
The Avesta; the Ved
Mithras—also called Mithra—was a god of ancient Persian mythology
associated with the sun. He became a major figure in the religion known as Zoroastrianism, which originated in ancient Persia and was connected with the supreme Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda (pronounced ah-HOO-ruh MAHZ-duh). In early forms of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda created Mithras as a god of justice and light. Mentions of this incarnation of Mithras date to 1500 bce. Later, Mithras came to be seen by some as a version of Ahura Mazda himself. A cult devoted to Mithras spread into the Mediterranean world in the first few centuries of the common era, where for a time it rivaled Christianity as the fastest-growing new religion. It is unclear whether the practices associated with the Mithras cult are connected with Zoroastrian worship of Mithras.
According to earliest Zoroastrian legends, Mithras was born from the earth, emerging from a broken rock with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. He worked for Ahura Mazda by battling demons, sorcerers, and other evildoers. He also judged the deeds of the dead and it was believed he could bring worthy humans back to life at the time of the end of the world.
Hundreds of years later, in ancient Greece and Rome, the worship of Mithras focused on his role as god of war, so soldiers in particular were drawn to the Mithras cult. The legend most associated with this phase of Mithras worship tells of Mithras slaying a great bull whose body and blood became the source of all life on earth. Animal sacrifices were central to his worship, which took place in caves or cavelike buildings in honor of the god's birth from the earth. Little concrete information about the Greek and Roman form of Mithras-worship survives. Most descriptions of how the religion was practiced in Greece and Rome come from later Christian writers and date to the third and fourth centuries CE, when Mithras-worship was at its peak. It seems most likely that it was an all-male cult with various levels, or ranks, and that rising through the ranks of the cult required special training and initiation. The Roman army carried the religion to Britain, Germany, and other outposts of the Holy Roman Empire.
Mithras in Context
The legends surrounding the Greek and Roman version of Mithras bear much in common with some elements of Christianity. For example, like Jesus Christ, Mithras was said to be born on December 25, to have performed miracles, to have the power to “save” human souls at the end of the world, and to have eaten a last supper with twelve followers. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300s, worship of Mithras was suppressed, along with other pagan beliefs. It is unclear whether the Mithras cult borrowed from Christianity or vice versa as both religions were widespread in the fourth century CE.
Key Themes and Symbols
Mithras is born with a sword and a torch. These two objects represent his roles as the god of war and the god of light. The “light” he represents is both literal and figurative: like the Greek god Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh), Mithras is a sun god. Mithras represents the light of truth and justice. Mithras himself came to represent strength, bravery, and manliness, which made him an appealing god for soldiers.
Mithras in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
At the turn of the twentieth century, an influential book on the Mithras cult was published: Franz Cumont's Texts and Illustrated Monuments Related to the Mysteries of Mithra. Cumont argued that the worship of Mithras by the Romans had its origins in a similar religion practiced by the ancient Zoroastrians, although there is little evidence to support this idea. The Mithras of the Zoroastrians is hardly mentioned outside the Avesta and the Vedas, and there is no archeological evidence in modern Iran (the area that was ancient Persia) of the caves devoted to later Mithras-worship.
Hundreds of the ancient caves and cavelike structures in which the Roman Mithras cult was practiced survive today in Italy, Germany, and Britain. Three Mithras-worship caves have been excavated along Hadrian's wall (built by Roman Emperor Hadrian) in northern Britain. One sculpture discovered there is of Mithras emerging from an egg, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Several writers have speculated about a connection between the Mithras cult of the first few centuries CE and another secret society that still exists today: the Freemasons. Because it is a secret society, and because it has boasted among its members some of the most famous men in Western history, the Freemasons have been the subject of much wild speculation and rumor. Using your library and the Internet, write a report about the origins and functions of the Freemasons. Evaluate your sources carefully. Only include information that seems reliable and verifiable, and only use sources that seem trustworthy and unbiased.
Mithras—also called Mithra—was a deity from ancient Indo-Iranian* mythology. He became a major figure in the religion known as Zoroastrianism, which originated in ancient Persia*. The cult of Mithras spread into the Mediterranean world, where for a time it rivaled Christianity as the fastest-growing new religion.
Some scholars identify Mithras with Mitra, a mythic figure of the Aryan peoples who invaded northern India around the l600s b.c. Mitra, the god of friendship, was associated with the sun and served as one of the judges of the dead. He was supposed to bring worthy people back to life after the universe ended. Some of Mitra's functions lingered in the developing mythology of Mithras.
The Persians saw Mithras as the principal assistant of Ahura Mazda, the god of goodness and light. Mithras battled demons, sorcerers, and other evildoers and helped the souls of worthy humans. In another role, as a god of war, he rode in a golden chariot pulled by four horses. Born from the earth, Mithras emerged from a broken rock with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. These objects represented his two roles as sun god and war god.
In the Greek and Roman form of the cult, Mithras's most important mythic act was the slaying of a great bull, whose body and blood became the source of all life on earth. Images of Mithras usually show him killing a bull. Such sacrifices were central to his worship, which took place in shrines located in caves or cavelike buildings in honor of the god's subterranean origins.
Little concrete information about the Greek and Roman form of Mithraism survives. Most descriptions of how the religion was practiced in Greece and Rome come from later Christian writers. Among Romans, Mithraism became an all-male cult much favored by soldiers, and the army carried it to Britain, Germany, and other outposts of the empire. Several Roman emperors worshiped Mithras. One was Diocletian, who in a.d. 307 dedicated a temple on the Danube River to Mithras, "Protector of the Empire."
deity god or goddess
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
sorcerer magician or wizard
subterranean under the earth
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
Mithraism bore many similarities to Christianity. For example, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25, to have performed miracles, and to have eaten a last supper with his 12 followers. After Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 300s, Mithraism was suppressed along with other pagan beliefs.
See also Ahura Mazda; Persian Mythology.
Mithraism became popular among Roman soldiers of the later empire, and was the main rival to Christianity in the first three centuries ad. The sacrifice of a bull formed an important part of cult worship.