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The Cult of Mithras

The Cult of Mithras

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Published by: api-3708113 on Oct 14, 2008
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The Cult of Mithras 
An Ancient Rite
(1) The Iranian Connection
From Angel to Warrior
 "Dating from around the 15th century BC, Mithraism emerged in ancient Persia. 'Mihr'(the Persian form of Mithras) was the word not only for the Sun but also for a friend; andthat seems to be how this pagan god was originally worshipped - as both supreme sungod and god of love."-
Quest for the Past 
 "Among the most universal cults of the ancient Armenians was that of Mithra, who wasidentified on the one hand with the sun, or Helios, on the other, with Apollo and Hermes.Mithra was originally conceived of as a kind of angel, a power of light who fights on theside of Ahura-Mazda[the Zoroastrian Lord of Wisdom]. This warlike characteristic heseems always to have retained.... Mithra's festival, the Mithrakana, was celebrated inIranian lands on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, and survived in modified formright up to Muslim times."- Burney and Lang,
The Peoples of the Hills
 "Mithra was believed to be the eye of Ahura Mazda and to rule over the earth. In theimagination of the Mithraic cult he came to replace the supreme deity. He engaged in agreat struggle between good and evil in which he was steadily victorious. To assure hisvictory, he sacrificed a great bull which was the prototype of the living world of nature.Through this sacrifice nature was made fertile."- Ninian Smart,
The Religious Experience of Mankind 
 "The basic doctrine of Mithraism, as far as can be told, is that Mithras was a god whowas born from a rock and destined to secure the salvation of the world; to do this he wascommanded by the god Apollo (through the intermediary agent of a raven) to slay theBull from the region of the Moon, which was said to represent the fullness of life.Mithras was reluctant to do this but acquiesced in deference to the divine will; in theensuing struggle between god and bull, other animals joined in - the dog, and scorpionand the snake. After Mithras was successful a quarrel broke out between Mithras andApollo, but they were reconciled and celebrated a banquet."- Peter Clark,
 Zoroastrianism, An Introduction to an Ancient Faith
, pp. 157-158"By the beginning of the third century BC, the militaristic rulers in western outposts of what had been the Persian empire were venerating Mithras as a divine warrior, no longer a loving Sun god but the unconquerable god of soldiers and friend of power."-
Quest for the Past 
A Question of Origins
 "At the end of the nineteenth century Franz Cumont, the great Belgian historian of ancient religion, published a magisterial two-volume work on the Mithraic mysteries based on the assumption of the Iranian origins of the cult. Cumont's work immediately became accepted as the definitive study of the cult, and remained virtually unchallengedfor over seventy years."- David Ulansey, "The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras"
Cumont's conclusions are supported by a number of archaeological findings."Reliefs on the many Mithraic altars scattered around Europe invariably show the godMithras killing the 'Bull of Heaven', a scene clearly echoing that of the slaughter of theuniquely-createdPrimal bullby Ahriman and recounted in the
. (It alsoresembles a similar Mesopotamian myth from the Gilgamesh epic.) What is more, thisscene contains other imagery which is also identifiably Zoroastrian, such as the dog wholeaps up in apparent approval of Mithras' deed; thedog,...is an important creature inZoroastrianism, essential to certain death rites. The snake, an Ahrimanic [demonic]creature, which can be seen under the bull's body, is shown attempting to prevent thefruits of the sacrifice, the blood of the bull, from making contact with the earth and givingit life."- Peter Clark,
 Zoroastrianism, An Introduction to an Ancient Faith
, p. 158Some contemporary scholars, however, disagree with Cumont's conclusions."It is probable...that the western Mithras had its roots in a daevic cult of the god as practiced in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and not in the cult of the Zoroastrianized Mithrain Iran. The western Mithras is a savior god in an era of savior gods."- Richard N. Frye,
The Heritage of Persia
 "One of the most elusive and hotly debated issues in the study of Zoroastrianism is the precise nature of the connection between the Iranian deity Mithra and the military RomanMithraic mystery cult, a connection which seems on the one hand so conclusive' and yeton the other so disturbingly remote. Even the historical problem of the manner of Mithra's arrival on the Roman scene remains unanswered. Some scholars have suggestedthat the conscription of Persian soldiers into the Roman army may account for it; others believe that Roman Mithraism was in fact a totally separate religion from its inceptionand was merely given a Persian 'gloss' to make it attractive to a population obsessed withthe cryptic and inscrutable cast. Still others connect the Roman cult with Anatolia, whereMithra was known to be venerated in the company of other deities familiar toZoroastrianism such as Anahita. There is little we can say about its journey west with anycertainty, since it was evidently a cult which seemingly functioned without the need for texts (there are none remaining which, given the geographical area covered by the cult atits most popular, strongly suggests that none were ever written down), and the fewinscriptions that do survive often merely illuminate the subjects of the carvings theyaccompany, revealing nothing substantial about the cult's origins. The cult whichvenerated Mithra in Roman circles (where he is traditionally known as Mithras), andwhich enjoyed a life of nearly 400 years, was esoteric, confined to male members of theRoman military and political elite (though traders and even slaves may have been eligiblefor membership), and demanded a series of seven graded initiation rites."- Peter Clark,
 Zoroastrianism, An Introduction to an Ancient Faith
, p. 157

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