This is a very special Spotlight as this one is split into two parts, each part dealing with separate but vaguely related entities. It’s also the first Spotlight to follow this formula.
Mithras is a very recognizable Roman cult deity, but he is also a very old deity in the world, having been worshiped in different names and capacities at different points in history. Traditionally he is seen a deity of light, often the sun, and justice, often taking on the characteristics of a warrior. At one point, he was the central deity of a popular cult, only to eventually disappear into obscurity. In today’s world he is often seen as one of the deities that inspired the invention of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian religion, with some people believing Jesus is a rip-off of Mithras.
The story of Mithras begins in Vedic India, when he was worshipped as Mitra – the deity of light, friendship, the morning sun, and contracts. He was a deity who helped preserved the order of the world inhabited by Man, and as such he was often paired with another Vedic deity named Varuna, who was charged with the order of the cosmos. Mitra and Varuna sometimes appeared as a compound figure, known as Mitra-Varuna, possibly because in the oldest of texts, Mitra was often indistinguishable from Varuna. Mitra was sometimes, however, distinguished from Varuna by certain characteristics. Mitra was considered a gentler or friendlier deity who preferred peaceful ways of protecting order and often abhorred violence, while Varuna was often seen as crueller than Mitra and often associated specifically with the punishment of transgression. In the Rig Veda, both Mitra and Varuna as viewed as capable of forgiveness, but Mitra was called upon for mercy more often than Varuna, which might suggest a more merciful deity. Also, while Varuna was often associated with the night, Mitra was frequently associated with the day, and sometimes had solar characteristics attached to him. He was also praised as being an all-seeing deity. Mitra was also sometimes seen as a friend of Man, and a mediator between Man and the Vedic pantheon. As the Vedic period drew to a close, however, Mitra lost his prominence in Indian religion, just as Varuna and many other Vedic deities did. It’s worth noting that Mitra was a prominent member of the Asura class of Vedic deities, but in later Hinduism Mitra and Varuna are not necessarily treated as Asuras or as demons, instead being treated as still divine. As Mitra is associated with sunrise, he is still invoked in prayers of the sunrise.
There are some who believe that the Vedic Mitra is directly related to the bodhisattva Maitreya, due to their names being related. This will be elaborated on in Part 2 of this Mythological Spotlight.
In ancient Iran, the Vedic Mitra became known as Mithra and was treated as an important divinity or Yazata in service of the deity Ahura Mazda. Specifically, he is the Yazata of oaths, covenants, and contracts, as well as the lord of wide pastures and the protector of truth, of cattle, and of the waters. Mithra was sometimes seen as related to the sun, though an entity distinct from the sun. However, he did eventually evolve within Zoroastrianism into a being that was co-identified with the Sun, effectively seen as the Sun itself. Some hymns have described Mithra as having a thousand ears and ten thousand eyes, and as being a deity who never sleeps. Mithra was seen as a deity of honor and morality who always upheld the sanctity of the contract, even if the contract was made by those who were surely going to break that contract. And in addition to presiding over the contracts made between individuals, Mithra presided over the pledges made between nations. Much like the Vedic Mitra, Mithra was all-seeing and he served as a mediator between the heavens and the earth. However, unlike Mitra, Mithra was also seen as having the virtues of a warrior and capable of potent wrath (whereas Mitra was averse to violence) – he punished whose who were impious and broke their word, sometimes bringing diseases and illness to wicked men, and he conquered the armies of evil with a powerful chariot. Mithra also fights alongside such divine companions as Sraosha (the Yazata of obedience), Rashnu (the Yazata of justice), and Verethragna (the Yazata of victory). By his militant virtues and his not-so-militant virtues, he was charged with maintaining the creation and order of Ahura Mazda. It is said that before the rise of Zoroastrianism, Mithra also happened to be the most important deity of a polytheistic tradition practiced by the ancient Iranians.
The Zoroastrian Mithra has also been equated by angelologists with the angel Metatron – the angel identified as the voice of YHWH. Yazdanism also recognizes Mithras as the “sun of the faith”, also named Shayk Shams al-Din.
Eventually, the Iranian Mithra somehow became the Roman cult deity Mithras, or at least become the basis of that deity. Mithras was a deity who emerged in the beginning out of a rock, and then enacted the creation of all things good through the sacrifice of a bull. This deity has some noticeable characteristics that separate him from his Iranian and Indian predecessors. While the Vedic Mitra abhorred violence, the Roman Mithras is known to have enacted creation itself through the violent act of sacrificing a bull, and was worshiped by soldiers. The myth of the tauroctony, which is central to the Mithraic cult, also contradicts one of the roles of the Iranian Mithra – the protector of cattle – and the sacrifice of a bull was said to have been abhorred by the Zoroastrians and denounced by the prophet Zoroaster, so the Mithraic idea of creation through tauroctony was antithetical to Zoroastrian or Iranian sentiments and was either a Roman notion or a notion originating in pre-Zororastrian Iranian religion. Mithras was not specifically a solar deity, but he was allied with the Roman deity Sol, who imparted Mithras with the powers of the sun. Some believe that Mithras was identified with the Greek primordial deity Phanes, who was seen as the creator deity of the Orphic religion. Mithras’ chief role is as the deity who oppose the forces of evil to protect life in the name of good, and the tauroctony may have been seen as an act of cosmic regeneration – in other words, by sacrificing the cosmic bull, Mithras may have staved off the forces of evil by nourishing the universe with life. Some also interpret the act as astrological in meaning – the bull may have represent the constellation of Taurus the Bull, and by sacrificing the bull Mithras ends the Age of Taurus and ushering in a new age. It is also believed that Mithras died and was reborn, and his birth was celebrated on the winter solstice.
The Mithraic cult preferred to conduct their worship in secretive temples called Mithraeums, which were made to resemble natural caves, like the cave wherein Mithras performed the cosmic tauroctony. Members would perform initiatory rituals to confirm levels of knowledge and spiritual development, and they were divided into seven ranks – all members were expected to pass through the first four ranks (Corax, Nymphus, Miles, and Leo) while only a few might pass through the rest (Perses, Heliodromus, and Pater). The Mithraic cult became very popular in Rome over the years, gaining many followers among the lower classes, the military, and eventually even among the upper classes. Because of its growing popularity, the Mithraic cult was once a considerable rival to the Christian faith, but unlike Christianity it was also primarily disadvantaged by the fact that only men could adhere to it – women were not allowed to join the Mithraic cult. Ultimately, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and years later Rome endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus bringing an end to the cult of Mithras. At this time, many of Mithras’ followers began to abandon his worship in order to please the Roman emperor, and the old Mithraeums were abandoned, desecrated, and destroyed – such destruction would undoubtedly have been encouraged by the Christian church, who viewed the Mithraic cult – along with every religion other than their own – as false and blasphemous.
Mithras is nowadays compared to Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be one of the deities that inspired his whole concept. Mithras and Jesus may have a few superficial similairities, but it’s important to remember some key differences: Jesus didn’t create the world through an act of sacrifice (also, in the Christian belief, the creator of the universe is still Yahweh/Jehovah; Jesus had nothing to do with the act of creation), Mithras was never born out of a “virgin” woman impregnated by a divine party (he was born out of a rock), Jesus was a human revolutionary who claimed ti be the son of “God” as opposed to being a full-blown deity, Mithras was not born in a manger, and Jesus, according to the Bible, cannot be confirmed as being born on the winter solstice – that was the product of the Christian church co-opting pre-Christian traditions in order to gain converts. Also, in the Mithraic cult, other deities could be worshiped alongside Mithras, while Jesus championed the monotheism of the Jewish religion, and the Christian religion based around him only allowed the worship of one deity, barring all others.
Mithras seems to have been a very ancient and very potent force of light. I find myself interested in his deep-seated connection to the sun, with justice, with the contract, with cosmic struggle, and the masculine warrior archetype, all of which makes him that potent an archetype of light. Considering those who read my blog usually know me in relation to the forces of darkness, this is kind of refreshing. But then, I like the Sun, and Mithras is a very interesting deity associated with the powers of the sun.
Click here for Part 2.