MITHRA . After Ahura Mazdā and together with Anāhitā, Mithra is one of the major deities of ancient Iran, one that later crossed the borders of the Iranian world to become the supreme god of a mystery religion popular throughout the Roman Empire. In the Avesta and the later Zoroastrian literature Mithra turns up frequently; indeed, an entire Avestan hymn is dedicated to him (Yashts 10). He was also the subject of the Mithrakāna, a great festival that took place annually in the seventh month of the Zoroastrian calendar, which was itself dedicated to him. He is known to us from many other sources: in the inscriptions of the Achaemenids, beginning with Artaxerxes II (404–359 bce), he is mentioned and invoked together with Ahura Mazdā and Anāhitā; on the coins of the Kushan empire he is named as Mioro and is depicted as a solar deity; in Parthian and Sogdian Manichaeism he is the tertius legatus ; in Persian Manichaeism, he appears as the spiritus vivens ; and so forth.
Mithra is essentially a deity of light: he draws the sun with rapid horses; he is the first to reach the summit of Mount Harā, at the center of the earth, and from there watches over the entire abode of the Aryans; he shines with his own light and in the morning makes the many forms of the world visible. If his name is synonymous with the word mithra, meaning "contract, covenant," as Antoine Meillet (1907) suggests, his functions are not restricted to merely personifying that notion. In the Iranian world, besides being a deity of light with strong solar characteristics (which explains his identification with the Mesopotamian Shamash), Mithra has a clear significance as a warrior god. Thus, in relation to the gods of the Indo-Iranian pantheon, he is closer to Indra than to the Vedic Mitra. He also, however, has the traits of a divinity who ensures rain and prosperity and who protects cattle by providing it ample pasturage.
The cult of Mithra, together with that of Anāhitā, constitutes the principal innovation of Zoroastrianism as it evolved after Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) and represents its major compromise with ancient polytheism. It was probably Mithra's role as defender and guardian of asha, truth and order—the fundamental principle of earlier Indo-Iranian religion, as well as of Zoroastrianism—that redeemed him from Zarathushtra's original general condemnation of polytheism.
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Gherardo Gnoli (1987)
Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris