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 soldier, 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 ungirt hour-now when we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, 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 soldier, keep us pure until dawn.
Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great Bull dies,
Look on Thy children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou hast fashioned - all of them lead to the Light!
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright.
The worship of Mithras has lasted over 3,500 years and continues today. For over 500 years, His religion vied with Christianity for dominance in Rome and through the then known world, ranging from Hadrian's Wall in the North of England to Persia, India and the Russian Steppes. His name varied with locality, being variously called Mitra (India) Mithra (Iran) and Mithras. He was also recognised by the Zoroastrians, the Mitanni (Hittites) and the Manicheans.
Most of our (limited) knowledge of Mithraism has come from the Roman Empire. It is known that they constituted one of the Mystery Schools of Rome, becoming almost as prominent as that of Isis. For some time, it looked as if it would become the dominant force in Rome, until the new Mystery School of Christ gained ascendancy, mainly due to very underhand tactics on the part of His followers (Now there's a surprise!). One wonders what the Western World might have become with Mithraism firmly established as the official State Religion.
But who was He? where did He come from? and what is His message for us today?
There is a degree of scholarly argument as to whether the Roman Mithras was the same as Mitra or Mithra, or a different development. The first recorded historical mention of Mitra was in a peace treaty, and he later became a “bounteous immortal”, a server of Zarathustra.
The root of the word Mithras is Mihir, an Indo European word meaning “friend” and “contract or pact”.
It is important to realise that these words did not have the same meaning as they do today – rather they represented more of a feudal arrangement, which was a two way relationship between the God and the devotee with duties and obligations on both sides – hence the contract! Like a feudal chieftain, Mithra was also a warrior, but a warrior for the Light, not just an overblown war god who was simply concerned with conquest. In his mighty chariot, drawn by four horses and adorned with many fearsome weapons, he would set out to fight evil, holding truth and justice above purely national concerns. In this aspect, we may catch an echo of Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita, or of Michael, Captain of the Hosts of God. Of this aspect, more later.
The Transfer to Rome
Here we find a difference in the nature and quality of Mithraic worship. Rome was the home of a number of mystery religions, of which that of Isis was the best known. In this scene at least, Mithras makes the transition from an associate deity to Indra (Indian) or Ahura Mazda (Iranian) to a more personal deity, one who would reveal secrets and give wisdom to those who followed his Path with loyalty and devotion. Like many of the Mystery Religions (of which Christianity was originally one) followers would have to pass a series of initiations in order gain advancement.
The Cicilians were inhabitants of a small part of Asia Minor, concentrated in two major cities, Tarsus and Tyana, in what is now modern day Turkey. With an extensive fleet, they captured hundreds of cities in their war against the Romans, while their leader Mithridates (Gift of Mithra) fought them by land. One notable facet of their campaign was that they were joined by men of wealth, rank and ability, and that they were devoutly honest and of high character. They contributed to the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Emperors.
Ultimately they were defeated by Pompey and settled in Greece where their religion began to attract the same adherents as before, men of culture and honour, wealth, and integrity. Eventually, they reached Rome, where they attracted many powerful converts. The followers of Mithras were expected to be brave, fearless, upright, scrupulously honest and truthful. Nor were they all soldiers, to be a Mithraic merchant was said to be a watchword for keeping ones word, and providing honest goods for the stated price. Imperial bureaucrats and Customs Officers, Senators and the Nobility, and even slaves also joined.
Mithraic ceremonies were held wherever possible in small underground chambers known as “crypta” or “speleum” “specus” or “spelunca” all of which last three mean cave. Frequently the walls were decorated with pumice stone to make them resemble a cave, which in Mithraic terms represented the cosmos. Small holes would be bored in the ceiling (which could be covered with precious gems) which would allow the light of certain stars to enter the chamber at specific times of the year, although the ritual purpose of this is unknown.
Astrology was however a feature of Mithraism, and more senior members of the organisation were expected to be proficient in its practice, so perhaps these two features were related.
The orientation of the cave was East-West, with the focus in the East, where the depiction of the Tauroctony (Bull Slaying) was placed.
Small narrow benches were set out for members to recline on during the Sacred Repast (or Festive Board) and the structure itself was only intended to hold a small number of people. Food was brought in from nearby buildings (or local inns) and the whole complex was known as a Mithraeum.
In other places, where a purpose built building was not available, rooms in private houses were used, although these would have required a degree of removable furniture and wall hangings, statuary etc.
There are many examples of Mithraea along Hadrian's Wall, and the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne has reconstructed one from excavations at Carrawburgh. A Virtual Tour is available below:-
As can be seen, the actual size of the Temple was quite small, and all in all, the biggest that have been found would not have held more than 50. There are many theories about why this was, (such as the cost of membership, or the difficulty of recruiting suitable members from a small local population) but it is undoubtedly overlooked by the more conventional that esoteric rites derive power best from modest sized groups. It also allows every member a chance to participate and to know their parts off by heart. That is also important, as from the Egyptian point of view, "Speaking from the Heart" means speaking with truth and power.
As with all Mystery Societies, members would have to undergo formal initiation into the Society, and the Mithraic initiation rites were known to be fearsome. The way the initiations were conducted will undoubtedly have a familiar ring about them to some.
A prospective candidate would be invited to consider joining and his details would be brought to the attention of the senior officers at a full sacred meal.
If approved, he is taught the “open secrets” of the Order and questioned by the Pater (Master) of the Temple on them. He either passes or is turned away, never to be initiated.
Before his initiation, he has to undergo a period of fasting and reflection, as well as some more physical tests and ordeals (the latter more likely in a military scenario).
He is brought to the Temple, disrobed and blindfolded in an antechamber before being admitted into the Temple with his hands tied behind him with chicken intestines. After an oath to reveal nothing of what he might see inside the temple, he was given an initiation mark (usually by branding) as well as an ordeal by water. It is likely that attempts to disorientate and frighten the candidate would also be made.
He would be presented to the Pater, and threatened with a sword, before the Obligation was administered, and nabarze (magical power) passed to him from the Pater or other officer. This was done (according to one wall painting) by having the hands of the Pater over the head of the candidate, in a manner similar to the consecration of a priest in the church, which argues for a Mithraic version of apostolic succession.
Finally, the bonds are cut and the blindfold lifted and the new Frater can see the Tauroctony before him along with a loaf of bread and a cup of wine for Communion (the Sacred Repast followed after). The significance of the bread and wine and the Tauroctony scene would then be explained to him (as well as any Password, Grip or Token). The newly made Frater would undoubtedly then be allowed to retire “to restore himself to his native comforts”.
Once initiated there were seven further grades of Initiation to attain to, although it is likely that very few actually made it to the top. There was only one Pater per Mithraeum, and relatively few senior officers.
Grades of Initiation
Note the planetary sequence above, ascending the grades took you from Hod to Netzach, then Geburah and Chesed, before returning to the astral base of the Middle Pillar in Yesod, and ascending to Tiphereth and then to Binah. It might be wondered why the pathway did not go straight to Kether instead – of which more later.
Progress was by learning and achievement, not by rote. Most who wanted to could make the grade of Miles, and there were also plenty of Leo's about. Famously, the Miles initiation consisted in part of the candidate being offered a laurel crown on a sword, which he had to refuse, saying “Mithras is my crown”. Nor was this a symbolic refusal, all Miles had to refuse, with the same words, all offers of public recognition. It might be said that at this initiation, the Miles became a “Soldier for Mithras” with all that implied, placing the God in a central position in his life.
The Leo initiation is one of the few grade initiations where there is anything known about the actual ceremony. As is appropriate, for the first Adept Grade, it was marked by a symbolic transition from life to death.
The Miles would enter the Mithraeum to the sounds of mourning. He would be divested of all his robes and the tools of his grade before being symbolically killed and placed in an enclosed chamber the size of a bathtub. There he would be subjected to extremes of heat and cold while being read the Mithraic version of the end of the world.
He would then be raised from the tomb, given a red cloak and the significance of the “working tools” of the grade explained (and given) to him. He would then be cleansed with honey to purify him from sin, and would be exhorted to live the ideal Mithraic life of “good words, good thoughts, good deeds”. Transgression by a Leo was considered a most serious event.
Again, I am sure that many will see parallels with other organisations here.
This was most likely the point at which most Mithrasians stopped, as the two higher grades were mainly administrative, and there were only one or two positions per Mithraeum.
The Degrees were split into three Orders as above with Leo marking the beginning of the Adept Grades, and the Pater being above the Adepts.
There was, in Rome, a central Council of ten Patrii which was run by the Pater Patrorum (Father of Fathers) who was chosen from among them. He was assisted by the Pater Sacrorum (Father of the Mysteries) who might have been a Director of Ceremonies, or a ritualist and teacher. The position of the Pater Patrorum has been likened to that of the Pope, although given the size of the Roman Empire, most Mithrea must have been autonomous, or nearly so. There is evidence of this in the different types of wall paintings found in Mithrea throughout the Roman Empire, the Germanic ones for example were fond of a scene called “The Great Hunt”, and certain regional officials were known to be semi autonomous, rather like Archbishops.
It is likely however, that the various rituals were the same, or similar.
A Pater was not usually elected from within the Mithraeum, but appointed, and once appointed was there for life, unless he behaved in a scandalous or inappropriate way. The only exception to this rule was in the military Mithrea where an individual could be posted away at regular intervals.
A Pater had to be learned in many things both ritual and esoteric as well as being an esoteric astrologer and administrator, and he was the initiator of all new candidates. There is a suggestion that this was more or less a full time post, and that the dues paid by the members of the Mithraeum paid for the upkeep not only of the Temple itself, but also for the maintenance of the Pater.
There are also tantalising hints of a hidden order called the Chryfii (or Hidden Ones) formed late on in the history of Mithraism. There are obvious elements here of the "Hidden Chiefs" of the Golden Dawn, but perhaps more prosaically, these were members who were being trained to take the order underground in the face of increasing hostility from the ascendant Christians.
The end for Mithraism (and other mystery religions too) came with the pronouncement of Christianity as the official state religion. With the power of the state behind them, they lost no time attacking and destroying anything that was not “theirs”. As Mithrasians were well respected in society, their loss must have been keenly felt:-
aloud; for the old world is broken:
Dolores – Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows by Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Myths and Symbolism
Like most ancient Avatars, Mithras does not have a conventional birth. He was born on the Winter Solstice, a fitting symbol of the Returning Sun. His birth was attended by shepherds, and various animals, sheep and goats, but not cattle, indicating that His emergence was at a time when cattle had not been domesticated.
His birth is attended by divine messengers, usually Mercury or Saturn, less commonly by Oceanus or Cautes and Cautopates. These last two are two torch bearers associated with Mithraic images, who stand with legs crossed in a manner reminiscent of the Tarot Card “The Hanged Man” One holds the torch upwards, while the other holds the torch downward. They have been compared to the Dioscurii, but apart from that, their symbolism remains obscure.
Here however, the similarity ends. Mithras is born fully grown from a rock, and is usually depicted as in the process of emerging from the rock, which emits divine light and fire. He is naked, except for his Phrygian cap, and holds a dagger in one hand, and one of the following objects in his other hand, a Terrestrial Globe (showing his dominion over the world), a torch, a bow and arrow, or sheaves of wheat.
Who His parents were remain a mystery.
The shepherds, or the divine messenger(s) assist in pulling Him out of the rock, and are told by the divine messengers of the significance of the event, which is that by His sacrifice of the Cosmic Bull, mankind has now the chance of immortality.
The Miracle of the Rock
Mithras is also an archer God. In one version of the tale, he fires an arrow into a rock from which gushes forth a stream of pure water (This has obvious parallels with the myth of Moses). Some see this as a Creation myth, where the Arrow of Creation splits the rock and forms the Cave, which the Mithrasians saw as the created universe, so this becomes a Cosmic event. Later on the blood of the sacrificed bull would flow from the cave, forming the Milky Way.
It could also be seen as an example of leadership, as the ability to find water in a sometimes dry and arid land would be one of the attributes of a tribal or nomadic leader.
The Great Hunt
This scene is shown mainly in the more northern (Germanic) reaches of the Mithraic world, which shows that some aspects of Mithraism developed along different lines according to local racial characteristics. Why this should be so is unclear as hunting was an accepted royal accomplishment in the middle east as well.
In the scenes, Mithras is shown on horseback, wielding a bow and arrow in pursuit of a deer or stag, which often had unusual horns ending in crescent moons. He can be accompanied by his companion animals, the dog, lion and snake. The esoteric meaning of the scene is unclear, but has been taken to indicate a training for his great battle, the Slaying of the Bull.
The Slaying of the Bull
This is the most familiar image associated with Mithras, and one that holds the central mystery.
The scene is always found (in various forms) in existing Mithrea, and has several main characteristics.
The bull is down on its knees, while Mithras is employed in driving a dagger into its shoulder while looking away. His foot is on the bull's back leg exposing the genitals which are being attacked by a scorpion. A dog (and /or) a snake are employed in leaping at the blood flowing from the wound in the shoulder.
In the story (and there are several variations), Mithras comes across the bull grazing by itself. Mithras surprises the bull and lifts it onto his shoulders, carrying it off into a sacred enclosure (or a cave). The bull escapes, and with Mithras clinging onto its neck, gallops across the countryside. Eventually, Mithras subdues it and carries it off to the cave, where it is slain, its blood forming the Milky Way, by which souls are born, and after death, by which they ascend to the starry heaven, from which they came. There are obvious parallels with the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom where Pharaoh ascended to the imperishable stars (e.g. Milky Way/Circumpolar Stars)
The symbolism is interpreted as follows:-
The bull's genitals are deliberately exposed by the act of holding down the back leg, while the Scorpion clutches them. This has been interpreted as an act of life denial, by cutting off the source of life so to speak, but is more symbolic of the dark watery side of our psyches being in control of our most primal drives. (i.e. the scorpion clutches and constricts but does not cut). Thus this is an indication of celibacy, or at least control of the desires (both sexual or physical) or of thoughts and deeds that should not be done. It is worth while remembering in this context that Mithrasians were only allowed one wife, although actual sexual abstinence does not seem to have been a requirement amongst them. It is possible, of course, that some Mithrasians, or those in the higher grades might have been celibate by choice.
The dog is a symbol of devotion and loyalty and represents the feudal obligations between the Mithraist and the God Himself. The faithful would be rewarded by a return to the Imperishable Stars from whence they originally came.
The snake represents the “fallen” aspect of man, but in this scene, even these aspects are deemed to be worthy of salvation. This is a complex matter, but it seems that there would be a choice here, of a return to the basic instincts of sex and reproduction, and hence a return to the Earth and rebirth, or a chance for the stars, and liberation form the cycle of being. (Much in the same way as the Path of Osiris lead to rebirth while the Path of Horus lead to the sun (c.f. The Book of the Two Ways)). This last statement must be seen as speculative, as there is no evidence to link Mithras with any concept of reincarnation, at least in His Roman form, the earlier versions of Mithra or Mitra (Indian) might have different associations.
The head of Mithra is turned away as if in sorrow at the killing of the bull, none the less, he is still master of it. Occasionally the life giving properties of the blood flowing from the wound are emphasised by symbols such as an ear of wheat. Occasionally a loaf of bread on a silver salver is shown.
Mithras and the women
One of the charges laid against Mithras and His followers is that they didn't allow women participation in their mysteries. As far as the record goes, this is true, but there are a number of factors to be taken into account which change this view.
Interestingly enough, another common charge against all male groups, that of homosexuality, was never raised against the Mithrasians, not even by the Christians who would undoubtedly would have relished the chance to spread this rumour against their enemies.
In both Roman and Greek times, men and women had their own mysteries, indeed, Aristophanes, the famed Greek comedian wrote a play about one such festival (The Thesmophoriazusae).
The festival was called the Thesmophoria which celebrated the mysteries of Demeter and Kore, and was a three day event for women only, which was widely celebrated throughout the Greek world. A man found trespassing on the scene would be put to death.
Secondly, and more importantly, we do now know that representations of the Goddess (in one form or another) were present in may forms. At the Mithraeum at Carrawburgh, (and at the nearby Vindolanda ( www.vindolanda.com ) votive tablets to the “Mother Goddess” have been found. What is also known is that Luna was usually a part of the decoration of the Temple itself, and a triple headed statue of Hecate has also been found, representing the Virgin, Lover and Crone, the Triple Goddess.
This, to me at least, is very significant, and indicates why the Path of Ascent up the Grades ended in Binah and not in Kether.
“For man that is born of woman, has but a short time to live”. Remembering that many of Mithras' followers were soldiers, and all were expected to be courageous in the face of adversity and death. So the words were more than usually relevant. This then, was the recognition that at death, they would return to the Great Mother, from whence they originally came.
Finally, there is a touching painting of a man in Mithraic robes standing at the door of his tomb, holding out his hand to his wife as if to welcome her too into the Greater Mysteries beyond.
The Mithraic Current faded and went underground, resurfacing in different times and places. The most obvious resurgence of the current came with the flowering of the Poor Knights of the Temple, better known as the Knights Templar. It will be recalled that they were formidable warriors and were forbidden to retreat unless they were outnumbered at least three to one.
More importantly, their motto sums up their credo (“Non Nobis Domine”) which has been expanded into:-
“Not to us, not unto us, but unto Thee be the Glory, Oh God”. It will also be remembered that they too were brought down by a corrupt king and a vacillating pope and church.
Freemasonry too (although without the military aspect) can lay claim to some of the current in the symbolism of the Third Degree and its general requirement for Freemasons to be just and upright, free and of mature age, sound judgement and strict morals.
Perhaps though, the last word on this should go to a well known hymn written in 1918 by the diplomat Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice:-
I vow to thee,
my country--all earthly things above--
another country, I've heard of long ago--
This is the statement of the Sacred Warrior, who, like Mithras, is present in many forms and guises, and in different times and places.
Perhaps today, we need the Sacred Warrior more than ever.