In Our Time: The Cult of Mithras

The cult of Mithras was one of several cults that sprang up in the Roman Empire during the 1st Century AD. It was a mystery cult and so what we know of it now comes from archaeological evidence and the writings of people who were not members. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Greg Woolf (University of St Andrews), Almut Hintze (SOAS, University of London) and John North (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London).

The historical origins of the Mithras cult aren’t clear – back in the late 19th Century it was thought that the cult had a direct connection to Zoroastrianism, mostly because there is a Zoroastrian god called Mithra. But more recent scholarship suggests that the connection isn’t particularly direct – it’s more like the Romans took the name & some very basic idea of the worship of Mithra and then reinvented it completely for their own cult. (Which meant it felt a little like Hintze was invited to the programme based on a faulty understanding, as she’s a Professor of Zoroastrianism – she did have other things to contribute, but I felt like she got unfairly cut off a few times.) Other cults that sprang up at the same time had similar types of origins, although possibly had closer links to their parent religion – things like the Roman Isis cult, or a Demeter cult. And of course Christianity can be seen as another of these – Pauline Christianity is partly a reinterpretation of Judaism for Gentiles.

The literary sources of information about the Mithras cult are pretty slim – a lot of it is written by Christians who are trying to show how their religion is a real one, and this Mithras nonsense is a work of the devil. That was apparently a mainstream Christian opinion during the first couple of centuries after Christ, that the devil had started up all these other cults so that the truth of Christianity would be obscured by competing cults. And later in the 4th & 5th centuries Christians were involved in the destruction of Mithraic temples (as part of a wider movement of the destruction of pagan temples).

The archaeology tells us more about the iconography & so on of the cult, but as I said at the start it was a mystery cult and so the iconography is not explained. One of the images that is present in nearly all excavated temples is of Mithras killing a bull, while a dog & a serpent lap up the blood and a scorpion & a raven are also involved in the killing. Hintze pointed out that this is very different from the Zoroastrian Mithra in the level of violence protrayed – whilst there is a Zoroastrian myth that death entered the world with the killing of a bull, it’s the force of evil who does the killing in Zoroastrianism and doesn’t come with so much violence. Whereas in the Mithras cult it’s the god doing this, and it’s a violent scene – still possibly having to do with creation of the cosmos in some fashion. Other scenes include some sort of story for how the bull ends up in the cave where it is killed (although these are not always in the same order which seems odd if they are a sacred narrative). And a meal that Sol & Mithras eat together.

The temples themselves represent a cave – the cave that the bull was killed in. And there are indications that the gathered worshippers (20-40 of them) ate a communal meal. There is also from one temple some recent evidence that there may’ve been some sort of ritual meal for non-initiates around the outskirts of the temple. But by the way this was presented on the programme it seems this is still very much a conjecture based on a single data point.

Another archaeological source for the cult are the dedicatory inscriptions from members of the cult. These are all from men, and as there are a few thousand of these (I think they said) this seems to suggest that there were no women members of the cult. They are also all from the middling sort of people – not poor, not rich. And are primarily members of the military or the bureaucratic hierarchy.

It seems that the cult had seven levels of initiate, the lowest ones were called ravens & the highest paters (fathers). One of the middle levels was called a leo (lion) and from some of the texts & inscriptions this seems to be the “normal” level of an initiate. There could only be one pater per temple, and when there were too many worshippers a new temple would be built. I think they have depictions of the initiation ceremonies for progressing up the levels & it seems that these were fairly brutal. Presumably they also involved transfer of the sacred knowledge, but we don’t have any record of this.

Towards the end of the programme they had a little segment doing a compare & contrast with Christianity, because that has always been one of the things that’s brought up when discussing Mithraism in a modern context. They talked about how the 25th December was supposed to be significant in the Mithras cult, but it seems this was based on a single calendar and it’s not even clear that that’s what the calendar meant! That’s the one I’d heard before, that Mithras’ birthday was the same as Christ’s but that doesn’t appear to be true. They also discussed how Christianity was actually more similar to the Demeter & Isis cult than it was to the Mithras cult – there’s no death & resurrection in the Mithras mythology (that we know of) for instance. And in the Mithras cult your position in the secular hierarchy was often reflected in your position in the initiate hierarchy – which is again not the case with Christianity.

When I set out to write this I wasn’t sure how much I was going to remember, but it seems the answer is “quite a lot” 🙂