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Mithra

Mithra (mĬth´rə), ancient god of Persia and India (where he was called Mitra). Until the 6th cent. BC, Mithra was apparently a minor figure in the Zoroastrian system. Under the Achaemenids, Mithra became increasingly important, until he appeared in the 5th cent. BC as the principal Persian deity, the god of light and wisdom, closely associated with the sun. His cult expanded through the Middle East into Europe and became a worldwide religion, called Mithraism. This was one of the great religions of the Roman Empire, and in the 2d cent. AD it was more general than Christianity. Mithraism found widest favor among the Roman legions, for whom Mithra (or Mithras in Latin and Greek) was the ideal divine comrade and fighter. The fundamental aspect of the Mithraic system was the dualistic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Mithra, who gave to his devotees hope of blessed immortality, represented the fearless antagonist of the powers of darkness. The story of Mithra's capture and sacrifice of a sacred bull, from whose body sprang all the beneficent things of the earth, was a central cultic myth. The ethics of Mithraism were rigorous; fasting and continence were strongly prescribed. The rituals, highly secret and restricted to men only, included many of the sacramental forms common to the mystery religions (e.g., baptism and the sacred banquet). Mithraism, which bore many similarities to Christianity, declined rapidly in the late 3d cent. AD

See F. Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra (reissued, 1956) and M. J. Vumaseren, Mithras, the Secret God (1963).

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Mithra

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.

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