On Mithra and Mithraism

On Mithra and Mithraism

October 2nd marks the beginning of Mithrá festival culminating on October 8th. It is a most happy festival of love, red wine, pomegranates, nuts and amore.

The name of the Indo-Aryan god-force (Avestan Mithrá, Vedic Mitrá,) is based on the common noun mitrá “to mediate, bring about a meeting of spirits/minds, mutual understanding, agreement.” (Compare with Latin mediari)

The ancient Aryan seer/prophet Zarathúshtrá uses the noun mithrö.ibyö in the sense of “ mutual understanding, like feelings, compassion, love, meeting of minds/spirits,” in his poetic gathas, Yasna 46.5, 2nd rhymed verse line.

Also 2 other Avestan passages viz. Vendidad 4 and Mithr Yasht 10.116-17 are key in understanding the meaning of Mithrá.

In Vendidad 4, mithrá means “mutual understanding, agreement, contract.”

Mithr Yasht 10.116-17 gives a list of the degrees of sanctity of different mithrás: between friends it is 20-fold, 30-fold between fellow-citizens, 40-fold between partners, 50-fold between husband and wife, 60-fold between fellow students, 70-fold between disciple and teacher, 80-fold between son-in-law and father-in-law, 90-fold between brothers, 100-fold between father and son, 1,000-fold between two countries; 10,000-fold is the mithrá of the Mazda (mind-power, wisdom) worshipping religion. Here mithrá appears in the sense of “affinity, like feelings, compassion, love.”

On Isis and Isiris (46-7), Plutarch speaks of Mithras as “in the middle” (meson) between the good Horomazes and the evil Areimanius, adding “and this is why the Persians call the Mediator Mithras, the referee, arbiter, or judge between the two warring parties.” (On the passage and its interpretation, see de Jong 1997: pp. 171-7; on Mithra as judge, see Shaked 1980.)

The Avestan hymn to Mithrá starts with the statement of Ahúrá Mazdā that he created Mithrá and made him worthy of worship and prayer like (yatha) himself (10.1).

Mithrá catches the person who thinks that the god powers do not see all the evil and deceitful deeds (10.105). Mithrá is the first ahúrá or godly power to approach across the mountain-range Hará in front of the sun; from there he surveys the whole Aryan dominions (10.13).

Mithrá is called upon for mercy (marždiká, 10.5) and is very merciful (hú-ámarždika, 10.140), Mithrá can become angry/enflamed (zarəmna, 10.47 Compare with German Zorn.)

Haômá or “the sacred mead” worshipped mithrá on the highest peak of the mountain range Hará (10.88). The auspicious or splendid immortals (ameshá pr amertá speñtás) consider Mithrá as one of the supreme god powers (ahü) and a wise counsel (ratü) of the living beings (10.92).

Mithrá is the beneficent protector and guardian of all creatures (10.54; cf. 103).

Mithrá Ahúrá (mithra of ahüric power) strikes down the evil sons of those who offer bloody sacrifices (10.113), like the diabolic (daævic) Viiāmburas (Yt. 14.57).

Mithrá’s most frequent epithet “wide cattle-pastures or wide living spaces” (vóurú.gaô-yaöiti) reflects his concern with the welfare of the cattle and peaceful conditions.

Mithrá’s association with the sun is clearly defined in Mithr Yasht 10.13: Mithrá is the first of the spiritual godly powers to rise over the mountain range Hará before the swift-horsed, immortal sun.

Strabo (first century B.C.) states that in their worship the Persians call the sun Mithrá (Geographica15.13.732). However, Curtius Rufus (Historia Alexandri 4.13.12) has Darius III invoke the Sun, Mithrá, and the blazing Fire before the battle. It appears that in Achaemenid times there was no consistent identification of Mithrá with the sun therefore.

Although there is an attempt in academic circles to talk of a pre-Zoroastrian Mithraic religion but there is NO single proof or evidence for such hypothesis whatsoever.

It shall be stressed that the term “Mithraism” is a modern coinage and a fairly recent academic invention. In the Rig Veda there exists only a pale and insignificant hymn to Mithrá. The Vedic hymn must have consisted of two parts originally (3.59.1-5 and 6-9).

Most Interestingly, the Vedic Mitrá lacks the heroic and splendid qualities of the later Avestan Mithrá almost completely. These are in the Veda taken over by the warrior god Indrá.

In Roman Empire the so-called mithraic religion was known as “the mysteries of the Invincible Mithrás (Sol Invictus Mithras)” or “the Persian religion.”

The ancient Roman followers of Mithrás themselves were convinced that their wisdom was founded by the ancient Aryan seer/Prophet Zarathúshtrá.

They believed that the ancient Aryan Prophet dedicated to Mithras, a cave in the towering mountains of Persia,” an idyllic setting “abounding in flowers and springs of water” (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).

Cumont correctly argues that Roman worship of Mithrá in the West was Romanized Mazdáism. And was still at its core a Zoroastrian Persian religion, though one that had undergone extensive metamorphoses in its passage (see Cumont 1931, Beck 1995).


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1 Response to On Mithra and Mithraism

  1. Omeed says:

    Dear Ardeshir

    Thank you for your interesting and informative article. I would like to point out that, although Mithrá was a revered Indo-Iranian deity, it belonged to a pantheon of gods that existed prior to the Zoroastrian faith, such as Arədvī Sūra Anāhīta, Vāyu-Vāta, etc, each with its own temples and places of worship, similar to the Greeks’ and Romans’ polytheistic faiths. As such, there was no religion known as Mithraism, just as there were no known religions based purely on the worship of Anāhīta, or Zeus or Mercury for that matter. What we now known as Mithraism, as practised by the Romans, although based on the same deity and mythology, is thought to have been different to the Mithrá worship that occurred amongst the Indo-Iranians. No mithraea have ever been unearthed east of western Turkey. Zarathustra caused a revolution in the polytheistic society of the time, by basing his new faith on Mazdā, a purely Iranian deity unattested in other faiths and cultures, and demoted some of the more important and revered deities to the position of aməša spəntas and yazatas.

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