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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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Mithra

MITHRA

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.

Bibliography

Bivar, A. D. H. The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature. New York, 1998.

Boyce, Mary. "On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 32 (1969): 1034.

Boyce, Mary, and Frantz Grenet. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 3. Leiden, 1991.

de Jong, Albert. Traditions of the Magi. Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.

Dumézil, Georges. Les dieux souverains des Indo-Européens. Paris, 1977.

Gershevitch, Ilya, trans. and ed. The Avestan Hymn to Mithra. Cambridge, 1959.

Gershevitch, Ilya. "Die Sonne das Beste." In Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells, vol. 1, pp. 6889. Manchester, 1975.

Gnoli, Gherardo. "Sol Persice Mithra." In Mysteria Mithrae, edited by Ugo Bianchi, pp. 725740. Leiden, 1979.

Lentz, Wolfgang. "The 'Social Functions' of the Old Iranian Mithra." In W. B. Henning Memorial Volume, edited by Mary Boyce and Ilya Gershevitch, pp. 245255. London, 1970.

Meillet, Antoine. "Le dieu indo-iranien Mitra." Journal asiatique 10 (1907): 143159.

Schmidt, Hanns-Peter. "Indo-Iranian Mitra Studies: The State of the Central Problem." In Études mithriaques, edited by Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, pp. 345393. Tehran and Liège, 1978.

Thieme, Paul. Mitra and Aryaman. New Haven, 1957.

Windischmann, Friedrich. Mithra: Ein Beitrag zur Mythengeschichte des Orients. Abhandlungen für die Kunde Morgenlandes, vol. 1.1. Leipzig, 1857.

Gherardo Gnoli (1987)

Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris

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