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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 (404359 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 orderthe fundamental principle of earlier Indo-Iranian religion, as well as of Zoroastrianismthat redeemed him from Zarathushtra's original general condemnation of polytheism.


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Gherardo Gnoli (1987)

Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris

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Mithra. God worshipped in four different religions: in Hinduism (as Mitra); in Zoroastrianism (Mithra); in Manichaeism (Mithra), and in the Roman Mithraic mysteries (Mithras). Why this Zoroastrianized Indo-Iranian deity was the focus of a cult in the enemy empire of Rome remains something of a historical puzzle. The reconstruction of Mithraic belief and practice is difficult, because no specifically Mithraic texts have survived, only inscriptions and accounts by outsiders, notably Porphyry. The main source of evidence is hundreds of excavated temples (Mithraea) and their statuary. The cult explicitly claimed to have been founded by Zoroaster and became known as the Persian mysteries. There were seven grades of initiation. The main cult relief (tauroctony) depicted Mithras slaying the bull, a scene thought to have soteriological significance, understood at least in part in astrological terms. The death of the bull appears to have been thought of as a unique inimitable act of the god himself, who is described in one inscription as having saved the initiates by the shedding of the eternal blood. Mithraism appears from the inscriptions to have been a very respectable cult, inculcating a disciplined, ascetic, and arduous life.