Mysteries of Mithras was a mystery religion practised in the Roman Empire (1st to 4th centuries CE), best attested in Rome and Ostia, Mauretania, Britain and in the provinces along the Rhine and Danube frontier.
Rituals and worship of Mysteries of Mithras:
Mysteries of Mithras was an initiatory order, passed from initiate to initiate, like the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was not based on a supernaturally-revealed body of scripture, and hence very little written documentary evidence survives. Soldiers and the lower nobility appeared to be the most plentiful followers of Mithraism. Until recently, women were generally thought to not have been allowed to join, but it has now been suggested that "women were involved with Mithraic groups in at least some locations of the empire." Recently revealed discrepancies such as these suggest that Mysteries of Mithras beliefs were (contra the older supposition) not internally consistent and monolithic, but rather, varied from location to location. No Mysteries of Mithras scripture or first-hand account of its highly secret rituals survives, with the possible exception of a liturgy recorded in a 4th century papyrus, thought to be an atypical representation of the cult at best. Current knowledge of the mysteries is almost entirely limited to what can be deduced from the iconography in the mithraea that have survived.
The mithraeum of Mysteries of Mithras:
Religious practice was centered around the mithraeum (Latin, from Greek mithraion), either an adapted natural cave or cavern or an artificial building imitating a cavern. Mithraea were dark and windowless, even if they were not actually in a subterranean space or in a natural cave. When possible, the mithraeum was constructed within or below an existing building. The site of a mithraeum may also be identified by its separate entrance or vestibule, its "cave", called the spelaeum or spelunca, with raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal, and its sanctuary at the far end, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Many mithraea that follow this basic plan are scattered over much of the Empire's former area, particularly where the legions were stationed along the frontiers (such as Britain). Others may be recognized by their characteristic layout, even though converted as crypts beneath Christian churches. From the structure of the mithraea it is possible to surmise that worshippers would have gathered for a common meal along the reclining couches lining the walls. Most temples could hold only thirty or forty individuals. The mithraeum itself was arranged as an "image of the universe". It is noticed by some researchers that this movement, especially in the context of mithraic iconography (see below), seems to stem from the neoplatonic concept that the "running" of the sun from solstice to solstice is a parallel for the movement of the soul through the universe, from pre-existence, into the body, and then beyond the physical body into an afterlife.
Mithraic ranks of Mysteries of Mithras:
The members of a mithraeum were divided into seven ranks. All members were expected to progress through the first four ranks, while only a few would go on to the three higher ranks. he first four ranks represent spiritual progress the new initiate became a Corax, while the Leo was an adept the other three have been specialized offices. The seven ranks were:
The titles of the first four ranks suggest the possibility that advancement through the ranks was based on introspection and spiritual growth.
Tauroctony of Mysteries of Mithras at the British Museum London:
In every Mysteries of Mithras temple, the place of honor was occupied by a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull which was associated with spring, called a tauroctony. In the depiction, Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap and pants, slays the bull from above while (usually) looking away. A serpent that symbolizes the earth and a dog seems to drink from the bull's open wound (which often spills blood but occasionally grain), and a scorpion (sign for autumn) attacks the bull's testicles sapping the bull for strength. Sometimes, a raven or crow is also present, and sometimes also a goblet and small lion. Cautes and Cautopates, the celestial twins of light and darkness, are torch-bearers, standing on either side with their legs crossed, Cautes with his brand pointing up and Cautopates with his turned down. Above Mithras, the symbols for Sol and Luna are present in the starry night sky. The scene seems to be astrological in nature.
Other iconography of Mysteries of Mithras:
An inscription from the city of Rome suggests that Mithras may have been seen as the Orphic creator-god Phanes who emerged from the world egg at the beginning of time, bringing the universe into existence. This view is reinforced by a bas-relief at the Estense Museum in Modena, Italy, which shows Phanes coming from an egg, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle. Reliefs on a cup found in Mainz, appear to depict a Mithraic initiation. On the cup, the initiate is depicted as led into a location where a Pater would be seated in the guise of Mithras with a drawn bow. Accompanying the initiate is a mystagogue, who explains the symbolism 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 now spouts water.
History and development of Mysteries of Mithras:
In antiquity, texts refer to "the mysteries of Mithras", and to its adherents, as "the mysteries of the Persians." This latter epithet is significant, not only for whether the Mithraists considered the object of their devotion a Persian divinity (i.e. Mithra), but for whether the devotees considered their religion to have been founded by Zoroaster. It is not possible to state with certainty when "the mysteries of Mithras" developed. Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity around the 3rd through 4th centuries, when it was particularly popular among the soldiers of the Roman Empire. Mithraism disappeared from overt practice after the Theodosian decree of 391 banned all pagan rites, and it apparently became extinct thereafter.
The early period of Mysteries of Mithras:
Mithraism began to attract attention in Rome around the end of the first century. Statius mentions the typical Mithraic relief in his Thebaid (Book i. 719,720), around 80 CE. The earliest material evidence for the Roman worship of Mithras dates from that period, in a record of Roman soldiers who came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the Roman province of Upper Pannonia (near the Danube River in modern Austria, near the Hungarian border). Other legionaries fought the Parthians and were involved in the suppression of the revolts in Jerusalem from 60 CE to about 70 CE When they returned home, they made Mithraic dedications, probably in the year 71 or 72. By the year 200, Mithraism had spread widely through the army, and also among traders and slaves. During festivals all initiates were equals including slaves. The German frontiers have yielded most of the archaeological evidence of its prosperity: small cult objects connected with Mithras turn up in archaeological digs from Romania to Hadrian's Wall.
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Expansion throughout the empire of Mysteries of Mithras:
According to the fourth century Historia Augusta, Commodus participated in its mysteries: Sacra Mithriaca homicidio vero polluit, cum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat "He desecrated the rites of Mithras with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror". Concentrations of Mithraic temples are found on the outskirts of the Roman empire: along Hadrian's wall in northern England three mithraea have been identified, at Housesteads, Carrawburgh and Rudchester. The discoveries are in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, where a mithraeum has been recreated. Recent excavations in London have uncovered the remains of a Mithraic temple near to the center of the once walled Roman settlement, on the bank of the Walbrook stream. Mithraea have also been found along the Danube and Rhine river frontier, in the province of Dacia (where in 2003 a temple was found in Alba-Iulia) and as far afield as Numidia in North Africa. As would be expected, Mithraic ruins are also found in the port city of Ostia, and in Rome the capital, where as many as seven hundred mithraea may have existed (a dozen have been identified). Its importance at Rome may be judged from the abundance of monumental remains: more than 75 pieces of sculpture, 100 Mithraic inscriptions, and ruins of temples and shrines in all parts of the city and its suburbs. A well-preserved late second-century mithraeum, with its altar and built-in stone benches, originally built beneath a Roman house (as was a common practice), survives in the crypt over which has been built the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome.
Decline and demise of Mysteries of Mithras:
There is very little information about the decline of the religion. The edict of Theodosius I in 394 made paganism illegal. Official recognition of Mithras in the army stopped at this time, but we have no information on what other effect the edict had. Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges into the fifth century.
Legacy of Mysteries of Mithras:
Sites of interest relating to the Mystery of Mithras include:
Italy: The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome has a preserved mithraeum with the altarpiece still intact in the excavations under the modern church.
Italy: The Castra Peregrinorum mithraeum in Rome, under the basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo was excavated in the 20th century.
Italy: Ostia Antica, the port of Rome, where the remains of 17 mithraea have been found so far; one of them is substantial.
Germany: The museum of Dieburg displays finds from a mithraeum, including ceramics used in the service.
Germany: The museum of Hanau displays a reconstruction of a mithraeum.
England: The museum at the University of Newcastle displays findings from the three sites along Hadrian's Wall and recreates a mithraeum.
Switzerland: The city of Martigny (ancient Octodurus), in the Alps, displays a reconstructed Mithraeum
Slovenia: The museum of Ptuj and town Hajdina near Ptuj.
United States: The Cincinnati Art Museum displays a relief from a mithraeum in Rome itself depicting Mithras slaying a bull.
Mysteries of Mithras and Christianity:
Evaluation of the relationship of early Christianity with Mithraism has traditionally been based on the polemical testimonies of the 2nd century Church fathers, such as Justin's accusations that the Mithraists were diabolically imitating the Christians. This led to a picture of rivalry between the two religions, which Ernest Renan summarized in his 1882 The Origins of Christianity by saying "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic." This characterization of Mithraism and Christianity as "deadly rivals" became mainstream in the early 20th century.
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