Mithra, Lord of Heavenly Light
Submitted by: swampy
‘A Song to Mithras – Hymn of the XXX Legion: Circa A.D. 350’
“Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the wall!
‘Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all’
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a solider, give us strength for the day!
Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat,
Our helmets scorch our foreheads; our sandals burn our feet,
Now in the ungrit hour; now ere we blink and drowse,
Mithras also a solider, keep us true to our vows!
Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main,
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn
Mithras also a solider, keep us pure till the dawn!
Mithras, God of Midnight, here where the great bull dies,
Look on thy children in darkness. Oh take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou has fashioned: all of them lead to the Light,
Mithras, also a solider, teach us to die aright.” (From Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.)
In Christian history, Christ’s birthday was not celebrated on December 25th until the 4th century. Before then, December 25th was best known as the birthday of the Persian Sun-God, Mithra (Mithras in Latin and Greek, and Mitra in India). The mythology of Christ’s birth seems to be very similar to that of Mithra’s, leading many scholars to note the role that Mithraism (the worship of Mithra) appears to play in the very foundations of Christianity as a religion.
In order to understand Mithraism, you really need to look at the history of Mithra and His worship. Mithra started out as an ancient Indo-Iranian god – in other words, He was originally worshipped in India and in ancient Persia. The birth of Mithra (who is sometimes mentioned as the son of Ahura Mazda), is said to have occurred at the winter solstice. The myth tells that Mithra sprang up full-grown man from a rock (or a cave), armed with a knife and carrying a torch. Shepherds watched His miraculous appearance and hurried to greet Him with the first fruits of their flocks and their harvests. Later, Mithra fought with the sun and managed to capture the divine bull and slay it before He ascended to heaven. From the blood of the bull came forth all the plants and animals beneficial to mankind. In the Avesta, Mithra is portrayed as having ten thousand ears and eyes, and riding in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Some scholars feel that the worship of Mithra actually started in India. In Hinduism, He is praised as the binomial Mitra-Varuna. A hymn is dedicated to Him alone in Rig Veda (3.59) and He is praised as the Lord of Heavenly light, protector of truth, and is invoked when a contract or oath is taken. The worship of Mithra quickly spread to ancient Persia, where He was worshiped as early as 1400 BC. Until the 6th century B.C., Mithra was apparently one of many minor Gods in the Persian religious system. Mithra became increasingly important until He appeared in the 5th century B.C. as the principal Persian deity, the god of light and wisdom, closely associated with the sun. When Zorostar reformed Persian polytheism (628-55 BC), thus starting the religion known today as Zoroastrian, all the existing gods and goddesses worshipped in Persia were drastically re-ordered into a new henotheistic hierarchy. Mithra was stripped of His sovereignty, reduced to the status of Yazata and all His powers and attributes were bestowed upon the main God of the Zoroastrian religion: Ahura Mazda. The word ‘Yazata’ is the Old Iranian designation for ‘god’. In Zoroastrianism the Yazatas are minor deities that are the guardians of the celestial bodies and the messengers of Ahura Mazda.
Although Mithra was ‘demoted’ in the Zoroastrian religion, this did not stop the worship of Mithra from spreading through the Middle East into Europe and becoming a worldwide religion, called Mithraism. Mithraism was introduced into the Roman world during the reign of Nero and soon was one of the great religions of the Roman Empire – in fact during the 2nd century A.D. it was more popular than Christianity, to which it bore many similarities. In Mithraism, Mithra was seen to be presiding over the changing of seasons and the movement of the heavens themselves. According to the teachings of Mithraism, the scene of Mithra slaying a bull represented the precession of the equinoxes – Mithra was in effect moving the entire universe. Astrologers of the Mithraism religion said that the epic battle of Mithra and the bull played itself out in the heavens every year as the seasons changed. Mithraism celebrated the changing of seasons as Nou-roz (spring equinox), Mehregan (autumn equinox), Shab-Yalda (winter solstice), and summer solstice.
Mithraism found widest favor among the Roman military legions, for whom Mithra was the ideal warrior God. Mithraism taught the dualistic struggle between the forces of good and evil and offered hope of immortality through the practice of secret rites and a system of rigorous ethics. The ethics of Mithraism were harsh – fasting and continence were strongly prescribed. The rituals, highly secretive and restricted to men only, included many of the sacramental forms common to the mystery religions (e.g., baptism and the sacred banquet). Like the other ancient mystery religions, such as the Eleusinian mysteries and the mysteries of Isis, the Mithraic cult maintained strict secrecy about its teachings and practices, revealing them only to initiates.
Mithra was worshipped in temples called Mithraea, which were artificially constructed caves that represented His birth-cave. The ceilings of the Mithraea looked like the starry sky and at the sides benches where placed for the ritual meals. Remains of Mithraic temples can be found throughout the Roman empire, from Palestine across north of Africa, and across central Europe to North of England. Three temples to Mithras have been found so faron Hadrian’s Wall, at Carrawburgh, Rudchester and Housesteads, and some 50 of these cave-temples still exist in Rome today.
Mithra was soon worshipped in Rome as ‘Deus sol invictus’ (“the unconquered sun”). The great popularity of Mithraism is evident in how many of Rome’s leaders were members – even the Roman emperor Commodus was initiated into Mithra’s cult. In 274 AD, the Roman emperor Valerian declared December 25th the Birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, and so this date became the celebration of Mithra’s birth.
As Christianity gathered momentum and eventually became the Roman Empires’ state religion (which occured when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in 312 AD), Mithraism was not tolerated. The religion began to decline then and after a temporary revival under Julius the Apostate (331-363), Mithraism disappeared for good. Christianity viewed Mithraism as a “satanic transversty of the holiest rites of their religion”. Nevertheless, Catholicism has preserved some of the outer form of Mithraism like the timing of Christmas; their Bishop’s adaptation of miters as sign of their office; and their priests being called ‘Father’, as were those ofMithraism. While the outer appearance of Mithraism can be detected inCatholicism, some traces of the inner teachings of Mithraism can be found in Sufisim.