Mithras Sol Invictus: an Initiate’s Guide
Updated: Aug 21
This article was first produced for the newsletter of the Roman Military Research Society (The RMRS) in 2008.
Introduction An often well received part of The RMRS’ living history displays are the demonstration and explanation of religious practices. Having dedicated an altar to Jupiter, it follows for the 'soldiers' to offer a short prayer to Mithras, the soldier’s god. But who is this mysterious deity so popular with Roman soldiers? In the following paragraphs we aim to briefly explore the background to this eastern enigmatic cult. This is not intended to be the definitive text on the subject, rather it is merely a beginner's guide to initiate you into the mysteries of Roman Mithras.
Etymology The Proto-Indo-Iranian word *mitra- (nominative *mitras) means '[that which] binds', deriving from the root mi- 'to bind', with the 'tool suffix' -tra- (cf. man-tra-). This meaning is preserved in the Mithra 'covenant' written in Avestan, the old Eastern Iranian liturgical language used to compose the sacred hymns and canon of the Zoroastrian sacred scripture of the Avesta. In Sanskrit, mitra literally means 'friend', one of the aspects of binding and alliance. Following the prehistoric cultural split of Indian and Iranian cultures, names descended from *mitra were used for the various religious entities, as follows.
Indic Mitra (in Sanskrit Mitrá-, Mitrá?) In the Vedic period (1500–500 BC) Mitra was a prominent deity (asura) of the Rigveda, a collection of hymns to various Indian deities, who had a distinguished relationship with Varuna, chief of the gods. Vedic Mitra was the patron divinity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings. The first extant record of Indo-Aryan Mitra, in the form mi-it-ra-, is in the inscribed peace treaty of c. 1400 BC between Hittites and the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni in the area southeast of Lake Van in Asia Minor. In the inscription Mitra appears together with four other Indo-Aryan divinities as witnesses and keepers of the pact.
Iranian Mithra (in Avestan Mira-, Miro) In Zoroastrianism, Mithra was a yazata (see InfoBox right) mentioned in the Zoroastrian sacred scripture of the Avesta and a member of the trinity of ahuras, protectors of asha/arta ('truth' or '[that which is] right'). Mithra's standard appellation was 'of wide pastures' suggesting omnipresence: Mithra is 'truth-speaking, ...with a thousand ears,...with ten thousand eyes, high, with full knowledge, strong, sleepless, and ever awake' (Mihr Yasht (Hymn to Mithra) 10.7). As preserver of covenants, Mithra was also protector and keeper of all aspects of interpersonal relationships, such as friendship and love. Related to his position as protector of truth, Mithra was a judge (ratu), ensuring that individuals who broke promises or were not righteous (artavan) were not admitted to paradise. As in the Indo-Iranian tradition, Mithra was associated with (the divinity of) the sun but originally distinct from it. Mithra was strongly associated with the feminine yazata Aredvi Sura Anahita, the hypostasis of knowledge.
Graeco-Roman Mithras The name Mithras is the Greek nominative form of Mithra, the yazata that, as previously mentioned, served as mediator between Ahura Mazda and the earth, the guarantor of human contracts. In Mithraism, however, much was added to the original elements of Mitra/Mithra, although the Mithraist emphasis on astrology strongly suggests a synthesis of beliefs with the earlier star-oriented Mesopotamian or Anatolian religions. At first identified with the Sun-god Helios by the Greeks, the syncretic Mithra-Helios was transformed into the figure Mithras during the 2nd-century BC, probably at Pergamon.
The Mysteries It is not possible to state with certainty when 'the mysteries of Mithras' developed. Moreover, the mythology surrounding the cult is not easily reassembled from the surviving enigmatic and complicated iconography. As Cumont  and later scholars  have noted, there are almost no texts for Roman Mithras: Celsus  and Porphyry  offered highly Platonised accounts that offer poor evidence for authentic Mithraic cult and doctrine. Epigraphy offers few details; instead, the mystery cult of Mithras left hundreds of reliefs and friezes each revealing tantalising glimpses of the mythology. Given the lack of textual evidence, we are left to interpret these reliefs literally, although they may represent abstract ideas and often tell contradictory stories. Indeed the dedicatory inscription on a 2nd- or 3rd-century relief discovered in a temple at Ostia in the 1790s refers to the 'incomprehensible deity' (INDEPREHENSIVILIS DEI). Apparently, the cult of Mithras did not depend, as Christianity does, on the interpretation of revealed texts considered to be divinely inspired. The surviving textual references are therefore those of Christians, who mention Mithras to deplore him, and neo-Platonists who interpreted Mithraic symbols within their own world-schemes .
However, we do have a number of dedications from followers of Mithras (mainly addressed to invictus ('unconquerable') Mithras), mainly from Roman Britain, the Rhine and Danube area and Italy. The finds suggest a large number of his worshippers were possibly low-ranking soldiers (there are very few examples of offerings from higher-ranking soldiers and those may have just been to encourage their men) and slaves, perhaps because a religion with a strict but straight-forward hierarchy allowed them the power they lacked in their everyday lives. Later in the 3rd-century, Mithraism filtered through to the upper classes and it was even used as a mid-ground argument against Christianity. Moreover, while being practised up to the 5th-century AD, it has been suggested that much of the myth and symbolism of Mithraism was influential on the early Christian Church.
Birth of a God There are several competing stories regarding Mithras‘ birth. Some say that he was born, or reborn, from a rock (the petra genetrix) or a tree typically with the snake Oroboros wrapped around it. A bronze image of Mithras emerging from an egg-shaped zodiac ring, the 'Cosmic Egg', was found associated with a temple on Hadrian's Wall (now at the University of Newcastle), while other stories have him being born of a virgin. An inscription from 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 emerging from an egg, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle. All stories reputedly agree that Mithras was born on December 25th - a date that in the 3rd-century AD would be celebrated as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti , or the 'Birthday of the Unconquered Sun' . Interestingly, some depictions of his birth show shepherds in attendance, while others show only two torchbearers, but regardless the stories all concur that it was Ahura Mazda who arranged for his creation.
Deeds Following his birth Mithras became an ally of the Sun and Ahura Mazda, god of life and light, in the eternal war against Ahriman, the god of death and darkness . He entered a struggle with a bull, the first living creature, in which he overcame it and brought it to his cave . The bull managed to escape, but Mithras was visited by a raven, who, acting as a messenger from the Sun, told him that it was his duty to track down the bull and kill it . Mithras succeeded in this, and when the bull's blood was spilt, all of the creatures of nature were created . Among the beings emerging from the bull's blood were the first human couple  and thus Mithras became an intermediary between Ahura Mazda and men, protecting them from the attempts of Ahriman to destroy them . Following the completion of these labours, Mithras ascended to heaven in the chariot of the sun .
Religious Worship It is difficult to reconstruct the daily workings and beliefs of Mithraism, as the rituals were highly secret and limited to initiated men only. Mithras 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 (the English translation followed in 1903).
Worship took place in a temple known to modern scholars as a 'mithraeum' (Latin, from Greek mithraion). A mithraeum was either an adapted natural cave or cavern, or an artificial building constructed to imitate a cavern, to thus resemble Mithras’ birthplace. As alluded to above, it is commonly believed that the cave in Mithraism imagery represents the cosmos, and the rock is the cosmos seen from the outside. Wherever possible, purpose-built mithraea were constructed within rooms inside or below an existing building, for example, a private home or a bathhouse. Mithraea were thus intended to be dark and windowless. A mithraeum may 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. Mithraea following this basic plan are scattered over much of the Empire's former area, particularly where the legions were stationed along the frontiers. Along Hadrian's Wall, for example, three mithraea have been identified at Housesteads, Carrawburgh and Rudchester. Finds from these sites are in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, where a mithraeum has been recreated. Excavations in London have uncovered the remains of a Mithraic temple near the centre 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 (modern Romania) 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 the ruins of temples and shrines in all parts of the city and its suburbs. A well-preserved late 2nd-century AD 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.
In every mithraeum, the place of honour was occupied by a tauroctony, a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull. In the Graeco-Roman myth, Ahura Mazda had sent a crow to instruct Mithras to slay the bull and release from its dying body the plants, animals and all the beneficial things of the earth. In the depiction, Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap and pants, slays the bull from above while looking away. A serpent, symbolizing the earth, and a dog are routinely depicted drinking from the bull's open wound (which often spills blood but occasionally grain), while a scorpion (representing 'autumn') attacks the bull's testicles sapping the bull’s strength. Typically, a raven or crow is also present, and sometimes a goblet and small lion. The torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, the celestial twins of light and darkness, stand 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. It has been proposed  that the tauroctony is a symbolic astrological representation of the constellations rather than an Iranian animal sacrifice scene with Iranian precedents. The bull is Taurus, the snake Hydra, the dog Canis Major or Minor, the crow or raven Corvus, the goblet Crater, the lion Leo, and the wheat-blood for the star Spica. The torchbearers may represent the two equinoxes, although this is less clear. Mithras himself could also be associated with Perseus, whose constellation is above that of the bull.
Rites and Rituals From the structure and layout of the mithraea (see right) it is possible to surmise that worshippers would have gathered for a common meal along the reclining couches lining the walls. It is worth noting that most temples could hold only thirty or forty individuals. According to Cumont’s work, members apparently ascended through seven grades of initiation, each aligned with a symbol, and a god (see inset). Archaeological evidence suggests that initiations involved three ordeals to be endured: heat, cold, and hunger . All members were expected to progress through the first four ranks, while only a few would proceed to the three higher ranks. The first four ranks represent spiritual progress - the new initiate became a Corax, while the Leo was an adept - the other three would have been specialised offices. Since Pater was the highest rank it is mentioned most frequently in inscriptions, but becoming a Lion appears to have been very important being regarded as a watershed in one's authority and responsibility within the cult. Through their association with Jupiter, Lions were aligned with fire and so it would have been inappropriate for them to be cleansed at their initiation with water. Honey was used instead which was also placed on the initiate’s tongue to symbolise their pure and cleansing words.
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 which spouted water.
Expansion throughout the Empire By 67 BC, according to Plutarch, a large band of pirates in Cilicia - on the Southeast coast of Anatolia - were practising 'secret rites' of Mithras. Eventually, this new cult was taken to Rome around the 1st-century BC and was subsequently dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. According to Tim O'Neill (2016), however, 'the current consensus is that the Roman cult had very little in common with the Persian or Indic cults and that the Roman Mithras shared not much with his Persian counterpart, other than a form of his name, his hat and his trousers' .
It is now thought that the uniquely Roman cult of Mithras began in Rome, spreading East and North from there, rather than being imported from the East and spreading West. 'It was an entirely new sect, but one that took on the name and the costume of a Persian god to give itself a veneer of antiquity and therefore respectability' . Being rather intolerant of what the Romans called superstitiones, its creators would have wanted people to identify the new sect with ancient beliefs and practices to avoid persecution. Regardless, Mithraism gained popularity among the Roman military, reaching the apogee of its popularity around the 3rd- and through the 4th-centuries AD, spreading as far north as Hadrian's Wall and the Germanic Limes. Indeed, the German frontier has yielded most of the archaeological evidence of the cult’s prosperity, and small cult objects connected with Mithras turn up in archaeological digs from Romania to Hadrian's Wall.
Material evidence for the Mithraic worship in the 1st-century AD is provided by soldiers from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the Roman province of Upper Pannonia (near the Danube River in modern Austria, near the Hungarian border). Likewise, Mithraic dedications, probably in the year AD 71 or AD 72, were made by legionaries returning home after the conflict against the Parthians and the suppression of the revolts in Jerusalem from AD 60 to about AD 70. When Mithraism was introduced by the Roman legions at Dura-Europos after AD 168, the god had assumed his familiar Hellenistic iconic formula as represented by the tauroctony. By the 3rd-century AD, Mithraism was officially sanctioned by the Emperors. According to the 4th-century Historia Augusta , for example, the Emperor Commodus participated in its mysteries, albeit in his own inimitable style managed to corrupt things:
'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.')
The end is nigh There is very little information about the decline of Mithraism. The overt worshipping Mithras seemingly disappeared after the edict of Theodosius I in AD 391 banned the practice of all pagan rites. While official recognition of Mithras in the army effectively stopped at this time, there is little information on what wider effects Theodosius' edict had. It is possible that Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges into the 5th-century AD. What is certain is that, about 2,000 years ago, another 'mystery' cult arrived from the East. It was to overshadow and ultimately and completely replace worship of Mithras the 'Unconquered Sun'.
"Ave Mithras, Sol Invicti!"
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3. A 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity.
4. Porphyry (c. AD 232 - c. AD 305) was a Neoplatonic philosopher who, like Celsus, was an early literary opponent of Christianity.
5. Sol Invictus was a Syrian sun god whose cult was first promoted in Rome under Emperor Elagabalus, without success. On December 25th, AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian succeeded in establishing the cult of Sol Invictus as an official religion, alongside the traditional Roman cults.
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