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The Cult of Mithras

Among the cults popular during the early empire was one dedicated to Mithras. Tradition holds that Roman soldiers discovered the cult while serving in Persia during the reign of Nero. Much of what we know comes from the temples where adherents of Mithraism worshipped. Frescoes and reliefs found in these temples typically show Mithras as a young man in the act of plunging a sword into the neck of a bull as he is helped by a dog, a scorpion, and a snake. Hence the god's nickname: the Bull Slayer. In fact, bull slaying, or the tauroctony, constituted a major component of Mithraic worship. Tradition holds that the blood from the slain bull generated life. Mithras served as a go-between between man and evil. Mithraic initiates regularly slaughtered bulls in their temples. Wall art found today still depicts the events in gruesome detail.

Images

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Mithras fresco
Mithras fresco
Door to the Mithraeum
Door to Mithraeum
Mithras shrine in Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica Mithraeum

Temples to Mithras, called Mithraea (Mithraeum , -i n., literally meaning "the place of Mithras"), were often built underground, or partially underground, to resemble caves. The exterior is simple. In a town the Romans called Capuae, now named Sancta Maria Capua Vetere, one enters a Mithraeum from street level though a vault like door (see photo on left). One descends a narrow stairwell to a darkened cave-like area. The main section of the average Mithraeum, or sanctuary, housed the sacred altar as well as rows of benches flanking a central aisle way (the nave), on which ritual meals of bread and water would be eaten. Day-to-day ceremonies and rituals took place in the sanctuary of the Mithraeum. Another section, called the narthex, served as a sort of atrium, and was screened off from the main section in order to prevent the uninitiated from entering the sacred innards of the temple. Those seeking to join Mithraism would first have to pass the rigorous tests of the "ordeal pit" in the narthex.

Evidence suggests that new initiates had to contend with the ordeals of heat, cold, and fasting in order to be accepted into Mithraism. In one Mithraic narthex, an "ordeal bench" sits perilously close to a huge fire pit. Having passed their ordeals, new members took their places within the Mithraic hierarchy at the lowest rank: the Corvax, or Raven. By taking on more ordeals and training, and by holding to the Mithraic ideals of truth, courage, and discipline, an initiate could progress through several ranks until he eventually reached the ultimate level: Pater, or Father. Initially soldiers comprised the primary bulk of Mithraic worshippers. In time public officials, tradesmen and even slaves became followers of this cult. One needs to remember that in ancient Rome it was possible to be participants in more than one religion.

Traditionally, Mithraic scholars believed that the symbolism of the slain bull and Mithras' companion animals pertained to Eastern (Persian and Hindu) mythology. Recent theories suggest that the animals represent constellations (Scorpio, Canis Minor, Hydra, and Taurus) rather than elements of a Persian creation myth. Indeed it may have been both. It seems that Mithraic worshipers understood that these constellations shift in the night sky over the course of thousands of years relative to the Earth's minute wobble. But the ancients failed to understand that it was the movement of the Earth that caused the constellations to shift rather than some celestial phenomenon. Thus, Mithraic cultists attributed the shifting of the heavens to some awesomely powerful god: Mithras.

Mithraism was a popular mystery cult in Roman territories since the second half of the first century B.C.E. up until the fourth century C.E. at which time Christianity became the dominant religion.

J.Jahnige, C.Shay - August 2006

Pictures by J.Jahnige, Mithraeum in Sancta Maria Vetere Capua, (Capuae in ancient times) Italy

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