The Roman Cult of Mithras
The Roman deity Mithras appears in the historical record in the late 1st century A.D., and disappears from it in the late 4th century A.D. Unlike the major mythological figures of Graeco-Roman religion, such as Jupiter and Hercules, no ancient source preserves the mythology of the god. All of our information is therefore derived from depictions on monuments, and the limited mentions of the cult in literary sources.
The temples of Mithras were always an underground cave, featuring a relief of Mithras killing the bull. This "tauroctony", as it is known today, appears in the same format everywhere, but with minor variations. Other standard themes appear in the iconography.
The cult was all male. There were seven degrees of initiation. Different ritual meals were associated with each stage.
The modern study of Mithras begins just before 1900 with Franz Cumont's Textes et Monuments (TMMM). This two volume work collected all the ancient evidence. Cumont presumed that Mithras was merely the Roman form of the ancient Indo-Persian deity Mitra or Mithra. In the mid-50's Cumont's pupil Maarten Vermaseren published a new collection of monuments, the CIMRM, which added the archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years, but also highlighted how poorly the archaeology supported the Cumontian theory. At the 1971 international conference on Mithraic studies, Cumont's theory was abandoned in favour of a Roman origin for the cult.
The ancient writer Justin Martyr referred to one of the ritual meals of the cult as being a parody of Christianity. Various authors, not all very scholarly, have tried to link Mithras and Christianity based on this and other real or supposed parallels. Some of Cumont's vaguer statements gave support to these attempts. Consequently various modern myths or misunderstandings came into circulation, sometimes even in non-specialist or outdated academic texts.
1. Summary of the cult myth
Mithras is born from a rock.1 He is depicted in his temples hunting down and slaying a bull in the tauroctony (see section below). He then meets with the sun, who kneels to him. The two then shake hands, and dine on bull parts. Little is known about the beliefs associated with this.2 The ancient histories of the cult by Euboulos and Pallas have perished.3 The name of the god was certainly given as Mithras (with an 's') in Latin monuments, although Mithra may have been used in Greek.4
In antiquity, texts refer to "the mysteries of Mithras", and to its adherents, as "the mysteries of the Persians."5 But there is great dispute about whether there is really any link with Persia, and its origins are quite obscure.6
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the archaeology includes a great many Mithraea, some of which are rebuilt and enlarged during this period.
It is difficult to trace when the cult of Mithras came to an end. Beck states that "Quite early in the [fourth] century the religion was as good as dead throughout the empire."9 Inscriptions from the 4th century are few. Clauss states that inscriptions show Mithras as one of the cults listed on inscriptions by pagan senators in Rome as part of the "pagan revival" among the elite.10 There is no evidence that the cult still existed in the 5th century.11
3.1. The Mithraeum
CIMRM 229. The Mithraeum at the Baths of Mithras in Ostia Antica.
The architecture of a temple of Mithras is very distinctive.12 Porphyry, quoting the lost handbook of Eubolus13 states that Mithras was worshipped in a rock cave. The Mithraeum reproduces this cave, in which Mithras killed the bull.14 The format of the room involved a central aisle, with a raised podium on either side.15
Mithraic temples are common in the empire; although very unevenly distributed, with considerable numbers found in Rome, Ostia, Numidia, Dalmatia, Britain and along the Rhine/Danube frontier; while being much less common in Greece, Egypt, and Syria.16 More than 420 Mithraic sites have now been identified.17
Mithraea are commonly located close to springs or streams; fresh water appears to have been required for some Mithraic rituals, and a basin is often incorporated into the structure.18 There is usually a narthex or ante-chamber at the entrance, and often other ancillary rooms for storage and the preparation of food. The term mithraeum is modern; in Italy inscriptions usually call it a spelaeum; outside Italy it is referred to as templum.19
3.2. The Tauroctony
See the Tauroctony.
CIMRM 1283. Tauroctony from Neuenheim near
Heidelberg, with side-panels.
In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull; the so-called tauroctony.20
The image may be a relief, or free-standing, and side details may be present or omitted. The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted bull, holding it by the nostrils with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. As he does so, he looks over his shoulder towards the figure of Sol. A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood.21 A scorpion seizes the bull's genitals. The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.22
The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.23 Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down from the sun to touch Mithras. Top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a chariot.
In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.
3.3. The Banquet of the Sun
CIMRM 641. Sol and Mithras banqueting with Luna
and the twin divinities Cautes and Cautopates, his
attendants. Marble, side B of a two-faced relief
from Fioro Romano, 2nd or 3rd century AD.
The second most important scene after the tauroctony in Mithraic art is the so-called banquet scene.25 The two scenes are sometimes sculpted on the opposite sides of the same relief. The banquet scene features Mithras and the Sun god banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered bull. On the specific banquet scene on the Fioro Romano relief, one of the torchbearers points a caduceus towards the base of an altar, where flames appear to spring up. Robert Turcan has argued that since the caduceus is an attribute of Mercury, and in mythology Mercury is depicted as a psychopomp, the eliciting of flames in this scene is referring to the dispatch of human souls and expressing the Mithraic doctrine on this matter. Turcan also connects this event to the tauroctony: the blood of the slain bull has soaked the ground at the base of the altar, and from the blood the souls are elicited in flames by the caduceus.26
3.4. The lion-headed figure
CIMRM 312-3. Lion-headed god
A unique feature of the Mithraeum is the naked lion-headed figure sometimes found in Mithraic temples.27 He is entwined by a serpent, with the snake's head often resting on the lion's head. The lion's mouth is often open. He is usually represented having four wings, two keys (sometimes a single key) and a scepter in his hand. Sometimes the figure is standing on a globe inscribed with a diagonal cross. A more scarcely represented variant of the figure with a human head is also found. Although animal-headed figures are prevalent in contemporary Egyptian and Gnostic mythological representations, the Leontocephaline is entirely restricted to Mithraic art.28
Although the exact identity of the lion-headed figure is debated by scholars, it is largely agreed that the god is associated with time and seasonal change.29 An example is CIMRM 78-79 from the Mithraeum in Sidon.
In some cases the name Arimanius appears against what seems to be the same figure. This label is probably derived from the Greek translation of the name of the Zoroastrian demon Ahriman. The inscriptions refer to "Arimanius" as "deus" (= "a god").30
4. Initiation into the mysteries of Mithras
In the Byzantine encylopedia known as the Suda there is an entry "Mithras", which states that "no one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests."31 Gregory Nazianzen refers to the "tests in the mysteries of Mithras".32
A series of five frescos at the Mithraeum of St. Capua Vetere depict what may be the rituals for some of the grades of initiation. They are very damaged and hard to interpret. The first shows a blindfolded naked man; in the second he is also kneeling and his hands are bound behind him; in the third he is no longer blindfolded and is being crowned; in the fourth he is being restrained from rising; in the fifth he is lying on the ground as if dead.33