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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mithras and the Carryover Effect of the Mithraic Cult on Early Christianity

This subject - that of the Savior Gods in general, and Mithraic influence on Christianity - has long fascinated me, and recently I re-read an old article I had written some 10 years ago. While it is not directly in keeping with the guidelines of this blog, it is germane, nevertheless, in its candid look at the manner in which we all reach - to some degree - the same place at some point in time. If we could but understand this at an earlier point along the line, the world might have been saved much heartache over the millenia.

Although scholars appear not to agree unanimously, there does seem to be a greater consensus that the veneration of the savior-god Mithras (the sun god, the Roman god of light) – also known throughout Europe and Asia by the names Mithra, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr, and Meher – began about 4,000 years ago in Persia, spreading east through India to China, and west through the entire length of the Roman frontier – from Scotland to the Sahara Desert, and from Spain to the Black Sea. Indeed, sites of Mithraic worship – in particular the cave-temples – have been found in Britain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa. (MS Encarta, 1994)

“Mithra is perhaps unique in history in that he is one god who has been worshipped in four different religions. He appears in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism because both derive from the Indo-Iranian religion of which Mithra was a part, and in Manichaeism because of the form that religion took in Persia.” (Beaver, Bergman, Langley, et al., p. 88)

Mithra was a scholar god of light who was born in a cave surrounded by animals and shepherds at the Winter Solstice in December (Howard, 1989, p. 23), called “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” (Smith, 1976, p. 146), (this latter term referring to Mithras), and “Nativity of the Sun” (Frazer, 1922, p. 416) because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. He was said to have been forced out of a rock, wearing the Phrygian cap, holding a dagger and torch in his hands. (Vermaseren, 1963) Others claim that Mithra was the result of an incestuous union between the sun god and his own mother, just as Christ was born of the Mother of God. Still other groups stated that Mithra’s mother was a mortal virgin, and finally, some claimed that Mithra was motherless, having miraculously been born of a female Rock, “the petra genetrix, fertilized by the heavenly Father’s phallic lightning.” (de Riencourt, 1974, p. 135)

Shepherds witnessed Mithra’s birth and Wise Men brought gifts. Furthermore, Mithra performed miracles, raising the dead, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, as well as casting out devils. (Smith, 1952, p. 129) “His triumph and ascension to heaven were celebrated at the spring equinox (Easter), when the sun rises toward its apogee.” (Walker, 1983, p. 663)

Before returning to Heaven, Mithra celebrated a Last Supper with his twelve disciples, who represented the twelve signs of the zodiac. In memory of this, his worshippers partook of a sacramental meal of bread marked with a cross. (Cumont, 1956, p. 160) This was one of seven Mithraic sacraments, (James, 1960, p. 250) called mizd, Latin missa, English mass. “The cross-shaped symbol was often depicted in ancient art to indicate the cosmic sphere. In fact, one of the most famous examples of this motif is a Mithraic stone carving showing the so-called ‘lion-headed god’, whose image is often found in Mithraic temples, standing on a globe that is marked with the cross representing the two circles of the zodiac and the celestial equator.” (Ulanesy, 1991) Mithra’s image was buried in a rock tomb, the same sacred cave that represented his Mother’s womb. He was withdrawn from it and said to live again. (Smith, 1952, p. 130, 201)
The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. (MS Encarta, 1994)

“In […] Gnosticism Mithras became the mediator between the cosmic opposites of […] the gods who represented the powers of light and darkness. By understanding the role of Mithras, the Gnostics taught that his human devotees could learn how to reconcile the good and evil aspects of their own nature by realizing that evil was only the shadow image of good and both had to exist in an imperfect world. […]

The candidate for initiation into the Mithraic Mysteries participated in a rite of death and rebirth […]. He was told to lie on the ground and act as if he were dead. The high priest of the cult, then grasped the ‘dead’ initiate by the right hand and raised him up in a symbolic act of rebirth. After the ritual the members of the cult shared a ritual meal of bread and wine. During the symbolic communion they believed they were eating the flesh of the young Sun god and drinking his blood. (Howard, 1989, pp. 23-24)

The most stellar section of hundreds of temple-caves that had served as places of Mithraic worship, often had statues or sometimes paintings that depicted Mithras as overpowering and killing a bull. It is precisely the living flesh of the bull that the ascetics tore and ate in their initiation ceremony, (Graves, 1948, p.143) and according to some authors, as suggested by the pits around Mithraic altars, even ritually bathed themselves in the blood of the bull. (Vermaseren, 1963.) Others (Smart) state that the initiate was baptized in the bull’s blood, partaking of its life-giving properties. Indeed, Mithraic Communion states: “He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.” (Vermaseren, 1963.)

An obscure Greek papyrus called “A Mithras Liturgy” described the experience of a Mithraic initiate: “For you will see in that day and in that hour the divine order, the ruling gods ascending to heaven and the others descending; and the path of the visible gods will appear through the disc of the son, my father, the god; similarly also the so-called tube, the origin of the ministering wind. For you will see as it were a tube hanging from the disc of the sun and toward the regions of the west, limitless like an east wind if the other is appointed to blow toward the regions of the west…” (Whitmont, 1982, pp. 7-8)

“The bull is associated with Venus or the Moon, and seen as a symbol of spring; another metaphor for rebirth. […] It was believed that the partaking of the sacrament ensured eternal life, the immediate passing, after death, to the bosom of Mithra, there to tarry in bliss until the judgment day. On the judgment day the Mithraic keys of heaven would unlock the gates of paradise for the reception of the faithful; whereupon all the unbaptized of the living and the dead would be annihilated upon the return of Mithras to earth. It was taught that, when a man died, he went before Mithras for judgment, and that at the end of the world, Mithras would summon all the dead from their graves to face the last judgment. The wicked would be destroyed by fire, and the righteous would reign with Mithras forever. Mithras, after performing his deeds, was said to have ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, to become the intercessor for the human race among the gods on high.” (Vermaseren, M.J. http://www.dimensional.com/~randl/tarsus.html).

Nevertheless, according to Wolf Liebeschuetz, “the survival of the soul after death is irrelevant for this cult. “The conclusion is unavoidable: the benefits of Mithraic initiation were expected in this life.” (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmer/1995/95.09.10.html)

Since nothing remains that has actually been written by a Mithraist, information about the mystery cult must be culled from archaeology, silent stones and stereotyped inscriptions dedicating a statue or temple. “Mithraic temples were generally small and built to resemble a cave, in imitation of what they thought was the ‘world cave’ which Mithras had created, with the vault of the sky spanning the earth. On each side of a central aisle were benches on which the initiates reclined. At the end opposite the entrance was a main cult relief, “ (Beaver, Berman, Langley, et al., 1982, p. 88), which, as mentioned earlier, was virtually always Mithras slaying a bull.

Believers were divided into seven grades of initiation. Progression through the grades was thought to reflect the spiritual ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres which bind it to the material world. “The highest degree was of Pater, papa (pope) […]. He was Mithras’ earthly representative. Light of heaven embodied, […], carrying a staff symbol of his spiritual office. (Daniels, 1989) The Father was a man of piety and wisdom. The main ritual known today was a feast enjoyed by the members in imitation of a meal shared by Mithras and Sol (the sun) over the body of the slain bull. One inscription refers to Mithras saving the followers by the shedding of eternal blood, so it was he alone who could save them. They shared in this salvation through the meal of bread and wine and through a lifetime’s personal discipline as each person progressed up the spiritual ladder of the seven grades. (Beaver, Berman, Langley, et al., 1982, pp. 88,89)

Unlike the other mystery religions, Mithraism was an ascetic, anti-female religion. Its priesthood consisted of celibate men only. Women were forbidden to enter Mithraic temples. (Ulansey, 1991) Mithras symbolized the courage, success and confidence of the soldier. The ethics of the cult demanded self-control and other virtues necessary to a legionary, and this was one main reason for its spread through the Roman army. Imperial patronage helped too. From the second century AD Roman Emperors assumed the title Invictus. (Smart)

Mithra’s cave-temple on the Vatican Hill was seized by Christians in 376 AD. Christian bishops of Rome pre-empted even the Mithraic high priest’s title of Pater Patrum, which became Papa, or Pope. […] The Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival of sun-priests or Magi at the Savior’s birthplace, was adopted by the Christian church only as late as 813 AD” (Walker, 1983, p. 665) “The Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap and garment and a ring, and carried a shepherd’s staff. […] Mithra’s bishops wore a mithra, or miter, as their badge of office. Christian bishops also adopted miters. Mithraists commemorated the sun-god’s ascension by eating a mizd, a sun-shaped bun embossed with the sword (cross) of Mithra. The hot cross bun and the mass were likewise adapted to Christianity. The Roman Catholic mizd/mass wafer continues to retain its sun-shape, although its Episcopal counterpart does not. All Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Gratian had been pontifex maximus, high priest of the Roman gods. When Theodosius refused the title as incompatible with his status as a Christian, the Christian bishop of Rome picked it up.” (Harwood, 1992)

Clearly, the connection between Christianity and Mithraism is palpable: Mithra was born of a virgin in a stable on the winter solstice, frequently December 25 in the Julian calendar, attended by shepherds who brought gifts. Mithra was shown with a halo around his head. Mithra was said to take a last supper with his followers when he returned to his father. He was believed not to have died, but to have ascended to heaven, whence it was believed he would return at the end of time to raise the dead in a physical resurrection for a final judgment, sending the good to heaven and the wicked to hell, after the world had been destroyed by fire. He granted his followers immortal life following baptism. Furthermore, Mithraists followed a leader called a ‘papa’ (pope), who had a temple-cave of worship on the Vatican hill in Rome. They celebrated sacramenta (a consecrated meal of bread and wine), termed a Myazda (corresponding closely to the Catholic Missa (mass), using chanting, bells, candles, incense, and holy water, in remembrance of the last supper of Mithra. (MS Encarta, 1994)Nonetheless, clearly, Mithraism is not the only forerunner of Christianity. Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other savior deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn’t be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world. (MS Encarta, 1994)

This is important, not to prove or disprove anything about Christianity or any of the other belief systems touched upon herein, but in order to gain a greater perspective on the shaping of world religions, and concurrently, perhaps, in order to understand that what is white is not always so and what is black may often be gray or even red. Having said that, the fact that some of Christianity’s most sacred ideas, rituals and customs - which most believers still in this day and age continue to hold as unique to Christendom – are not only not unique and not original to Christianity, but derive from so-called pagan religions - should merely serve to open our eyes to the great mystery that stands before us all and that may form part of the solution to greater world peace and freedom, namely: all paths eventually lead to the same place. Could we dwellers on this planet but believe that, then the Crusaders’ victims would not have had to die, the missionary zeal of the Dominicans in the New World could have spared itself a great many painful scalpings and other tortuous deaths, and Kosovo, notwithstanding the omnipresent CNN, would be an unknown word to most of the world.


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