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The road not taken

The Cult of Mithras, rather than Christianity, almost became the religion that dominated Western Europe. It failed, but intriguingly, we now hardly know anything about it.

Philip Coppens


The Mithraeum of San Clemens, Rome

Along Hadrian’s Wall, outside of Newcastle, is the unimpressive fort of Carrawburgh. Its parking lot is oversized for the amount of visitors it attracts. Those who do stop here, are only partially aware that on the furthest part of the fort’s edge, there is the adjoining “Roman Temple” or Mithraeum. When the small sanctuary was discovered, its layout, statues and inscriptions showed that this temple was dedicated to the Mithras cult. One guide to the site explains Mithras as being “the centre of a mysterious cult, popular with the army, which undertook dark mystical ceremonies, particularly hated by the Christians. You can step into the ruins here, but the altars are replicas and for a real feeling of what the place was like you must visit the full-scale reconstruction at the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle.”
Between St John Lateran and the Coliseum in Rome, sits the church of San Clemens – though it is easy to walk past it if you do not know what you are looking for. Underneath is a series of underground tunnels, parts of Roman baths originally installed underneath a Roman house. The underground complex has a room that is a Mithraeum. Here, the air is humid, and the entrance to the Mithraeum itself is fenced off; an alarm is triggered when anyone puts a finger on the iron door! It is one of a few surviving Mithraea in Rome, though some believe that at one point, there may have been more than 500… indeed, five hundred, which must be even more than the total amount of churches Rome has today.

The cult of Mithras – Mithraism – was a popular cult in the early centuries of the Christian era, throughout the Roman area, from the Middle East, via Italy, to its northern borders, like Hadrian’s Wall and along the German border. The religion was “hated” by Christians, for it was its greatest rival… and for a very long time thought to be the odds-on favourite to come out as the winner of the various new religions that were competing for the souls of the Romans. Amongst its followers, it were particularly soldiers that seemed most attracted to it and it is believed – at least by some – that they may have been the ones who stumbled upon the cult during one campaign or another. This all-male environment must have been beneficial to the cult, for women were apparently not allowed to join.
Though it had 500 temples (in Rome alone), was very popular, Mithraism has remained something of a mystery. The absence of a clear answer as to what the religion actually encompassed is partially due to the fact that it was a mystery religion, in which the doctrine was passed on from initiate to initiate; it was not based on a body of scripture, meaning that very little written documentary evidence existed, let alone survived.
Remarkably, scholarly research about the cult itself was, until recently, a preoccupation of just one person: Franz Cumont. Mithraism really was little more than a name until the massive documentation of Franz Cumont’s “Texts and Illustrated Monuments Relating to the Mysteries of Mithra” was published in 1894-1900, with the first English translation made available in 1903. Cumont’s opinions remained largely uncontested until the 1960s, but since then, some of his opinions have been both validated and invalidated, and a fresh, intriguing light is now beginning to shine over what the cult of Mithras was all about.

The Mithraeum of Seven Gates, Ostia

In essence, Mithraism was centred on the worship of the saviour god Mithras (just like Christianity is centred on Christ), mainly expressed through the image of a man slaying a bull (as opposed to a man hanging from a cross). The cult required initiation, was practiced in a small group, in an underground room (the Mithraeum), in which initiates were seated along two walls, with the width being reserved for the entrance door on one side and the main altar, depicting above it an image of Mithras slaying the bull, on the other side.
The Mithraeum, as quite a few survived and could thus be studied by archaeologists, is about the best documented aspect of the entire cult. The room was either an adapted natural cave or cavern or an artificial building imitating a cavern. It seems that they were most often constructed within or below an existing building, often baths. Most temples could hold only thirty to forty individuals. The set-up of raised benches along the side walls must have been partially to ease the partaking of a communal ritual meal.
The altar scene, depicting Mithras killing a sacred bull, is a ritual that is known as a tauroctony. The question is whether it was an actual slaying of a bull. It seems unlikely, given the location of the sanctuaries and its small size. Still, such display of physical prowess could be another factor as to why it was so popular with soldiers. Rather than a physical killing, David Ulansey has proposed that the tauroctony is a symbolic representation of the constellations. This is partially based on the observation that some depictions from Mithras show him wearing a cape that in some examples can be seen to have the starry sky as its inside lining. Ulansey thus identifies Mithras with Perseus, whose constellation is indeed above that of the bull. Perseus was the Greek hero who slew the monster Medusa, whose gaze was said to be able to turn men into stone. His argument is strengthened as on several depictions recovered from Mithraea, a serpent, a scorpion, a dog, and a raven are also present, each of which has a stellar equivalent. There is also a famous bronze image of Mithras, showing him emerging from an egg-shaped zodiac ring, in what has often been described as a “star gate”. This find was actually made in the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall. There are other references and depictions to Mithras as being the turner of the zodiac.
Ulansey was not the first to propose a stellar origin for the central image: in 1869, a German scholar K.B. Stark wrote that Mithraism was about stars and constellations, but this explanation was rejected by Cumont. Almost a century later, Ulansey tried to challenge the status quo – with some success.

If we were able to answer the question where Mithraism came from, we might be able to attain further insights into the cult. It was long thought that Mithraism was Persian, adapted from the Iranian and other Zoroastrian deities. But Zoroastrianism (the religion in which Freddie Mercury from the rock group Queen grew up in and which dripped into some of the group’s lyrics) has no element of initiation or grades. Furthermore, Zoroastrianism specifically worships under the open sky, not underground rooms, and it has no pantheon of planetary gods, or any correspondence in iconographic representation. So even though we assume that Mithraism originated in the Eastern part of today’s Iran around the 7th century BC and we know that it was practiced in the Roman Empire since the first century BC, where it came from remains something of a mystery.
If we read what the ancient writers had to say on the subject, we note that Origen wrote that “Celsus also describes some Persian mysteries, where he says: These truths are obscurely represented by the teaching of the Persians and by the mystery of Mithras which is of Persian origin. For in the latter there is a symbol of the two orbits of heaven, the one being that of the fixed stars and the other that assigned to the planets, and of the soul’s passage through these. The symbol is this. There is a ladder with seven gates and at its top an eighth gate.” Celsus’ statement therefore seems to confirm the stellar nature of the mythology, and adds that it was a symbol of the soul’s passage to “an eighth gate”. We also noted the cross-over between Perseus and Mithras and it is the Byzantine historian Gregorius Cedrenus who said that Perseus was said to have founded a new cult among the Persian Magi based on celestial secrets: “Perseus, they say, brought to Persia initiation and magic, which by his secrets made the fire of the sky descend.” Was this new cult Mithraism?

If Celsus is correct (and there is no reason to doubt him), Mithraism taught a doctrine that seemed to explain the progression of the soul through various stages, in order to reach “the eighth gate”. Traditionally, the seven steps (often linked with a ladder) represented the planetary orbits, with the eight orbit representing Mankind leaving this “reality” and enter another, divine realm, which was often seen as the reunification of the soul with God.
As we know that the cult had an initiation, what did it involve? Most believe that like Christianity, the first step involved a baptism. Reliefs on a cup found at Mainz (Germany) appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as being led into a location where the cult’s priest would be seated in the guise of Mithras with a drawn bow. Accompanying the Initiate is a ‘Mystagogue’, who explains the symbology and theology to the initiate. The Rite is thought to re-enact what has come to be called the “Water Miracle”, in which Mithras fires a bolt into a rock, and from the rock spouts water. This is very similar to demonstrations of ancient Greek gods, for example Athena on Athens’ acropolis, who frequently demonstrated their ability to break up rocks and create springs.
Once admitted, it is believed that the members were divided into seven ranks – conform to the spheres or gates, and no doubt initiation into each rank was seen as a passage through a “gate”. All members were apparently expected to progress through the first four ranks, while only a few would go on to the three higher ranks. The seven ranks were: Corax (raven), Nymphus (bridegroom), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (sun-courier) and Pater (father). Some of these names have clear stellar equivalents. The titles of the first four ranks suggest the possibility that advancement through the ranks was based on introspection and spiritual growth. When inducted into the degree of Leo, the initiate was purified with honey, and baptised, not with water, but (it is believed) with fire. This may be linked with the Persian fire magic of Perseus which was alluded to before. Intriguingly, in the Bible, we read that John the Baptist baptised with water, but that Jesus supposedly was to, or did, baptise with fire. But back to Mithraism: after this second baptism, initiates were considered "participants”, and they received the sacrament of bread and wine commemorating Mithras’ banquet, an event that many have seen as a clear parallel with the Last Supper, as well as the banquet in which Osiris was slain by Seth.

Let us tackle the bull by the horns, which seems appropriate enough as we are discussing Mithraim. Mithraism bears similarities with various other religions. Some claim Christianity was based on Mithraism, others suggest it is the other way around. According to Martin A. Larson in “The Story of Christian Origins” Mithraism and Christianity derived from the same sources, originally from the saviour cult of Osiris. But in the final analysis, Mithraism and Christianity are very distinct, even in origin. There are certain standard features that all religions share (initiation, ritual meals, etc.), but these are not the core beliefs of the religion. And if there is one aspect that sets Mithraism apart from all of its competitors, it is its central motif, the tauroctony, the myth of the slaying of a sacred bull.
As mentioned, Ulansey thought that the bull represents the constellation of Taurus. However, in the period in which the cult was most active, the sun at the vernal equinox had left Taurus 2000 years before and was in the process of moving from Aries to Pisces. This seems – is – a major problem for the promoters of this theory. Thus, it has been suggested that Mithraism is somehow connected to the end of the astrological "age of Taurus" and the beginning of the "age of Aries", which means it was created around that time and continued to commemorate that event. The question is why… Also, this would mean that the cult originated in ca. 2000 BC, even though there is no record of it until the 2nd century BC. It is more than likely older than the 2nd century BC, but by almost another two millennia? That seems unlikely. Furthermore, if it did originate in 2000 BC, it seems that the most logical – though therefore not necessary the correct – location would be Crete, which at the time had an obsession with caves and bulls. But then our ancient authors would be wrong…

Still, the constellations common in the sky from about 4000 BC to 2000 BC were indeed Taurus the Bull, Canis Minor the Dog, Hydra the Snake, Corvus the Raven and Scorpio the Scorpion, all of which may be identified in the Mithraic fresco from Marino. Further support for this theory is the presence of a lion and a cup in some depictions of the tauroctony: Leo (a lion) and Aquarius (the cup-bearer) were the constellations seen as the northernmost (summer solstice) and southernmost (winter solstice) positions in the sky during the age of Taurus.
In the final analysis, Ulansey’s suggestion has both pros and contras. One often heard challenge from critics is that Ulansey’s approach cannot work, for it relies on knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes, which they claim was only discovered by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC. There is, however, evidence that the precession of the equinoxes was known before and that Hipparchus should be considered as the earliest surviving record – not necessarily the man who discovered it. But whether the phenomenon was known by Mithraists before is unknown; we do note that the first record of Mithraism and the first record of the precession of the equinoxes both date from the 2nd century BC.

Let us add a final few notes on the central imagery of the cult. The tauroctony is the ritual slaying of a bull. In ancient Egypt, the sign of a new era was symbolised by the Apis Bull, who was the subject of an entire cult. We know that in 137 AD, when one Sirius year (of 1460 solar years) came to an end, the Emperor Hadrian was confronted with a small uprising that involved a dispute over an Apis Bull. It is argued that the Apis Bull had to be slain as part of the rituals that involved the advent of this new era, which is very similar to a shift from one zodiacal age to the next, but which in Egypt seems to have been of secondary or no importance, focused as they were on the stars, rather than the zodiac, with each star attaining the same position in the sky every 1460 years.
Equally, there is the story about Cambyses II of Persia, who was King of Egypt from 525-521 BC. He, at first, was said to have killed the sacred Apis Bull in fury after his soldiers were lost in the Lybian desert. But modern archaeological evidence suggests that Cambyses actually buried one Apis Bull according to the proper rituals. Did he perform a tauroctomy, as performed in the cult of Mithras?
Is it possible that the cult of Mithras was a reformulation of the Egyptian cult of the Apis Bull? We know that from the 3rd century BC onwards, the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt instructed the Egyptians to make their religion both accessible and understandable to the other (mainly Greek and Jewish) cultures. The Corpus Hermeticum is thus seen as a Hellenised rendition of the Egyptian wisdom of Thoth. But the ancient Egyptians had more than one cult; was the Apis Cult recodified into the Mithras cult? It is an intriguing suggestion, which no-one seems to have seriously posed!

Were the constellations linked with mankind’s ascent through the heavens, to the “eight gate”? There is the so-called Mithras Liturgy, a section of a Greek magical papyrus which says of itself that it is a revelation granted by the great god Helios Mithras. The original editor of the text, Albrecht Dieterich, claimed that it was authentic and part of Mithraism, but Cumont rejected this and ever since, it has been confined to the shades of Mithraic research and remains the topic of animated debate.
Dieterich was convinced that the ritual spelled out the liturgy for the ascent and immortalization of the soul. His thinking thus conforms to the opinions of the ancient writers. The Liturgy is a document sprinkled with astrology and magic and emphasizing the ecstatic ascent of the individual soul – three ingredients that we have identified as forming the backbone of Mithraism. Intriguingly, the magical codex, of which the Mithras Liturgy forms lines 475 to 834, was apparently collected for use in the working library of an Egyptian magician.
The text of the Mithras Liturgy is composed of two main parts: a liturgical mystery of ascent (lines 475-750), followed by a set of magical instructions (lines 750-834). After the brief introduction (lines 475- 485), the mystery of ascent presents the seven liturgical stages for the soul's ecstatic journey: the soul thus encounters the four elements (lines 485-537), in their generative and regenerative aspects; the lower powers of the air (lines 537-585), including the winds, bolts of thunder and lightning, and meteors; the god Aion and the Aionic powers (lines 585-628) as planetary guardians – gatekeepers – of the heavenly doors. Then it is on to Helios (lines 628-657), young and fiery; the seven Fates (lines 657-672) and, next, the seven Pole-Lords (lines 673-692), both groups from the region of the fixed stars, and both depicted in Egyptian fashion. Finally, there is the highest God (lines 692-724), portrayed as Mithras himself.
After the conclusion (lines 724-750) to the mystery of ascent, the magical instructions include a scarab ceremony of the sun (lines 750-798), which provide instructions for obtaining the kentritis herb and the fashioning of amulets (lines 798-830). The Liturgy also includes breathing techniques (lines 537-538: drawing in breath from the rays). In short, the Mithras Liturgy is more than likely the real thing. Too many sceptics have seen influences of the Hermetica in its writings, but this is only to be expected. The Hermetica was the third important player in the “domination game” that also involved Mithraism and Christianity and common themes and osmosis are to be expected.

Mithraeum at Carrawburgh, Hadrian's Wall

By 200 AD, Mithraism had spread widely through the army, and also among traders and slaves. As mentioned, the cult was the main competitor of Christianity, but the latter’s popularity was boosted by Constantine’s tolerance of it from around 310 AD. This was a major blow for Mithraism, particularly as Christianity admitted women while Mithraism did not, which obviously limited its growth potential. The reign of Julian, who attempted to restore the faith and once again suppress Christianity, as well as the usurpation of Eugenius renewed the hopes of its devotees, but the decree by Theodosius I in 394 AD, which forbade all non-Christian worship, may be considered the end of Mithraism’s formal public existence. Still, Mithraism survived in certain cantons of the Alps into the 5th century, as well as in the South of France – a region where depictions of bulls date back to 20,000 years, in the famous cave paintings that can be found in that region. In Toulouse (France), the cult of Mithras equally remains visible as the Mithraeum is retained as a crypt under the earliest church dedicated to the local saint Saturnin, evocatively named "Notre-Dame du Taur". There is even a suggestion that the Mithras cult was responsible for the bullfighting that occurs in this region. It is true that Saint Saturninus had a protégé, Saint Fermin, in Pamplona, a town that is world famous for its annual bullfight.
As can be seen in Toulouse, but equally San Clemens in Rome and many other examples, many Mithraea were turned into Christian churches. In fact, there is even one Mithraeum on Rome’s Vatican Hill, which was seized by Christians in 376 AD. Some also argue that many of the Mithraea then became dedicated to the archangel Michael, who was also the patron saint of soldiers.

Though Christianity won, there was also quite a bit of assimilation. Both the birth of Mithras and the birth of Christ are celebrated on December 25, although nowhere does the New Testament claim that Christ was born on this day. In fact, early Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth on January 6 and only under the influence of Mithraism and another popular cult, Sol Invictus, was it moved to December 25. Both cults were also responsible for changing the holy day of early Christianity from Saturday to Sunday. Many have also noted that the title of Pope (father) is found in Mithraic doctrine and was seemingly prohibited in the early Christian doctrine. Though as a religion it did not win, it is nevertheless quite intriguing how today, the Pope has a name that derives from Mithraism and reigns from the Vatican, which in origin was a Mithraeum. It underlines how close Mithraism came… but in the end not far enough; it seems that as a religion, it never went through its own eighth gate.

This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 7 (2007).