Mithraism in comparison with other belief systems

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This is an article on Mithraism in comparative mythology and comparative theology. See Mithraic mysteries for the main article.

The Roman cult of Mithras had connections with other pagan deities, syncretism being a prominent feature of Roman paganism. Almost all Mithraea contain statues dedicated to gods of other cults, and it is common to find inscriptions dedicated to Mithras in other sanctuaries, especially those of Jupiter Dolichenus.[1] Mithraism was not an alternative to other pagan religions, but rather a particular way of practising pagan worship; and many Mithraic initiates can also be found worshipping in the civic religion, and as initiates of other mystery cults.[2]

However, in popular culture and especially among the New Atheist movement, the most widely discussed element of Mithras in the context of comparative religion is his relationship with Christianity. Connections with the figure of Jesus himself have even been posited but are generally ignored by scholars[citation needed]. More widely discussed are a few apparent similarities between early Christian liturgical practice and the Mithraic rites, similarities which were noted in antiquity by Christian writers and have been subject to varying interpretations over time[citation needed].

Comparisons with contemporary Roman gods[edit]


Orphic speculation influenced the cult of Mithras at times.[3] In Orphism, Phanes emerged from the world egg at the beginning of time, bringing the universe into existence.

There is some literary evidence of the syncretism of Mithras and Phanes. A list of the eight elements of creation appears in Zenobius and Theon of Smyrna; most of the elements are the same, but in Zenobius the seventh element is 'Mithras', in Theon it is 'Phanes'.[4]

A Greek inscription on a statue base from a Mithraeum in Rome reads "to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes". A relief from Vercovium (Housesteads) on Hadrian's Wall shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring.[5] Ulansey adds:

"The identification between Mithras and Phanes indicated by CIMRM 860 is also explicitly attested by an inscription found in Rome dedicated to 'Zeus-Helios-Mithras-Phanes' and another inscription dedicated to 'Helios-Mithras-Phanes'."[6]

Another syncretistic relief is in Modena. This shows Phanes coming from an egg with flames shooting out around him, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, in an image very similar to that at Newcastle.[7] Further references also exist.[8]

Helios/Sol/Sol invictus[edit]

Mithras stock epithet is Sol Invictus, "invincible sun". However, Mithras is distinct from both Sol and Sol Invictus, and they are separate entitites on Mithraic statuary and artwork such as the tauroctony scenes, in Mithras hunting scenes, and in the Mithraic banquet scenes in which Mithras dines with Sol.[9] Other scenes feature Mithras ascending behind Sol in the latter's chariot, the deities shaking hands and the two gods at an altar with pieces of meat on a spit or spits.[9] One peculiar scene shows Sol kneeling before Mithras, who holds an object in his hand, interpreted as either a Phrygian cap or the haunch of the bull.[9]

Different gods being each other is a feature of Hellenistic syncretism however and the distinct imagery sometimes is intended to convey such ideas. Mithras shaking hands with Helios affirms their identity as the same underlying deity.[citation needed]

Unlike Helios / Sol, who was part of the traditional state-sponsored Roman religious system, and also unlike the Sol Invictus cult, which became an official state-sponsored cult under Aurelian in 274 CE, the Mithraic cult (as all other mystery cults) did not receive state sanction. Under Commodus' rule (r. 180–192 CE), the title invictus became a standard part of divine and imperial epithets, but this adapted from Hercules Invictus, not from either Sol or Mithras.[10]

Jupiter Dolichenus[edit]

The Mithraea at Carnuntum appear to have been constructed in close association with contemporary temple of Jupiter Dolichenus,[11] and there seem to have been considerable similarities between the two cults; both being mystery cults with secret liturgies, both being popular in the military, and having similar names for their officials and initiates. Two large Mithrea have been discovered in Doliche itself (modern Gaziantep in Turkey), which have been proposed as being unusually early.

Mithraism and Christianity[edit]

Mithraic altar depicting Cautes riding a bull (Sibiu/Hermannstadt, Romania).

The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithraism is based in part on a remark in the 2nd-century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion rite.[12] Based upon this statement, Ernest Renan in 1882 set forth a vivid depiction of two rival religions: "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic."[13] Scholar Edwin M. Yamauchi criticized Renan's inference, which he claimed, "published nearly 150 years ago, has no value as a source. He [Renan] knew very little about Mithraism."[14]

Christian apologists, among them Ronald Nash[15] and Edwin Yamauchi,[16] have suggested a different interpretation of Mithraism's relationship to Christianity. Yamauchi, pointing out that most of the textual evidence for Mithraist doctrine was written after the New Testament was in broad circulation, posits that it is more likely that Mithraism borrowed from Christianity than the other way around. However, Persian scholar and art historian, Abolala Soudavar cites Plutarch, [17] writing, "that in the year 67 BC, pirates who had more than a thousand sails and had captured more than four hundred cities, "offered strange rites of their own at Mount Olympus, and celebrated there, certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them…"" Soudavar submits that Plutarch pins Mithraic worship in Rome long before the birth of Christ, and it is therefore improbable that Christian traditions informed Mithraic, but rather the opposite.

The philosopher Celsus in the second century provides some evidence that Ophite gnostic ideas were influencing the mysteries of Mithras.[18]

Miraculous birth[edit]

Maithras was born from a rock. David Ulansey speculates that this was a belief derived from the Perseus myths, which held he was born from a cavern.[19]

25th of December[edit]

Bas-relief of Mithras looking to Sol Invictus as he slays the bull. Inscription top line: Soli Invicto Deo.

It is often stated (e.g. by Encyclopaedia Britannica[20][21], the Catholic Encyclopedia[22], et al.[23][24]) that Mithras was born on December 25. But one person, Roger Beck, argued in a 1987 article that this is unproven, calling this assertion "that hoariest of 'facts'". He continues: "In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of Invictus on that date in Calendar of Philocalus. Invictus is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian's sun god. It does not follow that a different, earlier, and unofficial sun god, Sol Invictus Mithras, was necessarily or even probably, born on that day too."[25] (Note that Sol Invictus played a prominent role in the Mithraic mysteries, and was equated with Mithras.[26][27][28])

Unusually amongst Roman mystery cults, the mysteries of Mithras had no 'public' face; worship of Mithras was confined to initiates, and they could only undertake such worship in the secrecy of the Mithraeum.[29] Clauss states: "the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own. The festival of natalis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)], held on 25 December, was a general festival of the Sun, and by no means specific to the Mysteries of Mithras.".[30]

Steven Hijmans has discussed in detail whether the general natalis Invicti festival was related to Christmas but does not give Mithras as a possible source.[31]

However, in the original homeland of Mithra, one of the world's oldest continuously practiced religions still celebrates his birthday. The present-day Iran Chamber Society's Ramona Shashaani shares traditional 'Persian' (i.e. 'Parsee' = Zoroastrian) culture and history:[32]

While Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, the Persians are getting ready to tribute one of their most festive celebrations on Dec. 21st, the eve of winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year. In Iran this night is called SHAB-E YALDAA, also known as SHAB-E CHELLEH, which refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun.
... YALDAA is chiefly related to MEHR YAZAT; it is the night of the birth of the unconquerable sun, Mehr or Mithra, meaning love and sun, and has been celebrated by the followers of Mithraism as early as 5000 B.C.
... But in the [Roman-controlled area's] 4th century A.D., because of some errors in counting the leap year, the birthday of Mithra shifted to 25th of December and was established as such.


A painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum (c A.D. 200)[33] in Rome contains the words: et nos servasti (?) . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us ... in the shed blood). The meaning of this text is unclear, although presumably it refers to the bull killed by Mithras, as no other source refers to a Mithraic salvation. However, the servasti is only a conjecture.[34] According to Robert Turcan,[35] Mithraic salvation had little to do with the other-worldly destiny of individual souls, but was on the Zoroastrian pattern of man's participation in the cosmic struggle of the good creation against the forces of evil.[36] According to Akhondi and Akbari, red was a color of prominence. The sacrifice of the bull's holy blood was a sign of fertility and life, much as in Christianity red wine can symbolize the sacrifice of Christ. In addition, white was an important color for the cult. The bull always remained white because it was a symbol of purity and holiness. Moon and stars painted in gold and white were also important symbols to the cult and later incorporated into Christian architecture and other decorations. [37]

Mithraists believed that one day Mithra's works would be complete on earth and that he would return to heaven. [38]

Symbolism of water[edit]

Monuments in the Danube area depict Mithras shooting a bow at a rock in the presence of the torch-bearers, apparently to encourage water to come forth. Clauss states that, after the ritual meal, this "water-miracle offers the clearest parallel with Christianity".[39]

Sign of the cross[edit]

Tertullian states that followers of Mithras were marked on their forehead in an unspecified manner.[40] There is no indication that this mark was made in the form of a cross, or a branding, or a tattoo, or a permanent mark of any kind.[41] The symbol of a circle with a diagonal cross inscribed within it is commonly found in Mithraea, especially in association with the Leontocephaline figure.

Mithraic motifs and medieval Christian art[edit]

From the end of the 18th century some scholars have suggested that certain elements in medieval Christian art reflect images found in Mithraic reliefs.[42] Franz Cumont was among these scholars, although he studied each motif in isolation rather than in context.[43] Cumont suggested that after the triumph of the Christian church over paganism, artists continued to make use of stock images originally devised for Mithras in order to depict the new and unfamiliar stories of the bible. The "stranglehold of the workshop" meant that the first Christian artworks were heavily based on pagan art, and "a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture".[44]

A series of scholars have since discussed possible similarities with Mithraic reliefs in medieval Romanesque art.[45] Vermaseren stated that the only certain example of such influence was an image of Elijah drawn up to heaven in a chariot drawn by fiery horses.[46] Deman stated that to compare isolated elements was not useful, and that combinations should be studied. He also pointed out that a similarity of image does not tell us whether this implies an ideological influence, or merely a tradition of craftmanship. He then gave a list of medieval reliefs that parallel Mithraic images, but refused to draw conclusions from such parallels, since these would be subjective.[47]

Mithraea re-used in Christian worship[edit]

Several of the best preserved Mithraea, especially those in Rome such as at San Clemente and Santa Prisca, are now to be found underneath Christian churches. It has been suggested that these instances might indicate a tendency for Christians to adopt Mithraea for Christian worship, in a similar manner to the undoubted conversion into churches of temples and shrines of civic paganism, such as the Pantheon. However, in these Roman instances, the Mithraeum appears to have been filled with rubble prior to the erection of a church over the top; and hence they cannot be considered demonstrable examples of deliberate re-use. A study of early Christian churches in Britain concluded that, if anything, the evidence there suggested a tendency to avoid locating churches on the sites of former Mithraea.[48]

On the other hand, there is at least one known example of a Mithraic carved relief being re-used on a Christian church, in the early 11th-century tower added to the church of St Peter at Gowts in Lincoln, England. A much-weathered Mithraic lion-headed figure carrying keys (presumably from a ruined Mithraeum in Roman Lincoln) was incorporated into the church tower, apparently in the mistaken belief that it was an ancient representation of the Apostle Peter.[49] Elsewhere, as in one of the Mithraea in Doliche, there are instances where the tauroctony of a cave Mithraeum has been replaced by a cross, which suggests later use as a church; but again the date of re-use cannot be determined, and hence it is by no means certain how far the Christian occupiers were aware of their cave's Mithraic past.


  1. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.158.
  2. ^ Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 49. ISBN 0-674-03387-6.
  3. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70
  4. ^ Zenobius Proverbia 5.78 (in Corpus paroemiographorum Graecorum vol. 1, p.151) (Clauss, p.70 n.84). Theon of Smyrna gives the same list but substitutes Phanes. See Albert de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin literature, p.309 on this; quoted on Pearse, Roger Zenobius on Mithras Archived 2012-03-18 at the Wayback Machine and Who is Theon of Smyrna?.
  5. ^ Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70, photo p.71. The relief (Vermaseren 860) is now at the University of Newcastle.
  6. ^ Ulansey, David, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, pp.120-1. Excerpts here "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-22. Retrieved 2010-03-22.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link).
  7. ^ Vermaseren, M., The miraculous birth of Mithras, p.287 n.10. The relief is in the Estense Museum in Modena, Italy. See also F. Cumont, "Mithra et l'Orphisme", RHR CIX, 1934, 63 ff; M. P. Nilsson, "The Syncretistic Relief at Modena", Symb. Osi. XXIV, 1945, 1 ff.
  8. ^ Vermaseren 695: marble relief from Mutina or Rome; V 475: Greek inscription from Rome, dedication by a Father and priest to Zeus-Helios-Mithras-Phanes
  9. ^ a b c Beck, Roger (2004). "In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony". Beck on Mithraism: Collected works with new essays. pp. 286–287.
  10. ^ Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras. pp. 23–24. Invictus” became a standard part of imperial titulature under Commodus, adopted from Hercules Invictus, but had been used for Mithras well before then.
  11. ^ Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.44.
  12. ^ Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 66: "For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn."
  13. ^ Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579
  14. ^ Edwin M. Yamauchi cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.175
  15. ^ Ronald Nash, "Mystery Religions of the Near East," Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 1999.
  16. ^ Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?" March 29, 1974.
  17. ^ MITHRAIC SOCIETIES From Brotherhood Ideal to Religion‘s Adversary
  18. ^ Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.17, referencing Origen, Contra Celsum book 6, cc.22-24 where a ladder of seven steps is described, similar to one used by the Ophites. Clauss states that the borrowing was by the Mithraists, but nothing in Contra Celsum seems to say so.
  19. ^ Ulansey, David (1991). The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. Oxford University Press. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0195067886.
  20. ^ "Why is Christmas in December?". Encyclopaedia Britannica. December 25th... was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers.
  21. ^ "Roman Religion". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 4 July 2011. The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals — notably Christmas, which blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.
  22. ^ Martindale, Cyril Charles (1908). "Christmas". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. The well-known solar feast... of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. / ... [3rd-century St.] Cyprian [of Carthage wrote]... "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born." / In the fourth century, Chrysostom... says:... "But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eight before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice." / Already Tertullian... had to assert that Sol was not the Christians' God; Augustine... denounces the heretical identification of Christ with Sol. / Pope Leo I... bitterly reproves solar survivals — Christians, on the very doorstep of the Apostles' basilica, turn to adore the rising sun.
  23. ^ Vermaseren, Maarten Jozef; van Essen, Carel Claudius (1965). The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome. Brill. pp. 238–. Retrieved 3 April 2011. One should bear in mind that the Mithraic New Year began on Natalis Invicti, the birthday of their invincible god, i.e., December 25th, when the new light... appears from the vault of heaven.
  24. ^ Cooper, D. Jason (1996). Mithras: Mysteries and Initiation Rediscovered. Samuel Weiser, Inc. (Weiser Books). Chapter Seven (first page). ISBN 9780877288657. The Holy Birth: Mithras was born on December 25th, the day of the winter solstice on the old calendar.... The date was a very deliberate reference to the solar year, since we know from graffiti that Mithras bore the secret name Meitras, which in Greek numerology has a value of 365.
  25. ^ Beck, Roger (1987). "Merkelbach's Mithras". Phoenix. 41 (3): 296–316. doi:10.2307/1088197. JSTOR 1088197., p. 299, n. 12.
  26. ^ Ulansey, David. (1989). The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, p. 107. Oxford University Press.
  27. ^ Salzman, Michele Renee. (2004). Pagan and Christian Notions of the Week in the 4th Century CE Western Roman Empire In Time and Temporality in the Ancient World, p. 192. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  28. ^ Alvar, Jaime, tr. Gordon, Richard (2008). Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, p. 100. Brill.
  29. ^ Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-674-03387-6.
  30. ^ Clauss, Manfred. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. München: Beck, 1990, p. 70."... erwähnenswert wäre dass das Mithras-Kult keine öffentlichen Zeremonien kannte. Das Fest der natalis Invicti, der 25. Dezember, war ein allgemeines Sonnenfest und somit keineswegs auf die Mithras-Mysterien beschränkt. Es gab also im Mithras-Kult nichts vergleichbares zu den großen Feiern und Festlichkeiten anderer Kulte ..."
  31. ^ Hijmans, Steven (2003). "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas". Mouseion. 3 (3): 377–398.
  32. ^ Shashaani, Ramona (December 1999). "Borrowed Ideas; Persian Roots of Christian Traditions". Iran Chamber Society. Retrieved 16 November 2019.
  33. ^
  34. ^ Panciera, Il materiale epigrafico dallo scavo del mitreo di S. Stefano Rotondo, in: Mysteria Mithrae (conference 1978 published 1979).
  35. ^ Turcan, Robert, "Salut Mithriaque et soteriologie neoplatonicienne," La soteriologiea dei culti orientali nell'impero romano,eds. U. Bianchi and M. J. Vermaseren, Leiden 1982. pp. 103-105
  36. ^ Beck, Roger, Merkelbach's Mithras, p.301-2
  37. ^ Akhondi, Zohreh (December 2016). "The Influence of Mithraism on Christianity". Journal of History Culture and Art Research. 5 (4).
  38. ^ Akhondi, Zohreh (December 2016). "The Influence of Mithraism on Christanity". Journal of History Culture and Art Research. 5 (4).
  39. ^ Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.71-2.
  40. ^ Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40: "if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan, ) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown."
  41. ^ Per Beskow, "Branding in the Mysteries of Mithras?", in Mysteria Mithrae, ed. Ugo Bianchi (Leyden 1979), 487-501. He describes the entire idea as a "scholarly myth". See also FAQ by Dr. Richard Gordon.
  42. ^ Deman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R. (ed.). "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 507–17. p.507
  43. ^ Deman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R. (ed.). "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 507–17. p.508
  44. ^ Cumont, Franz (1956). McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.) (ed.). The Mysteries of Mithras. Dover Publications. pp. 227–8.
  45. ^ Deman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R. (ed.). "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 507–17. p.509
  46. ^ Vermaseren, M.J (1963). Mithras: The Secret God. Chatto & Windus. pp. 104–6.
  47. ^ Deman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R. (ed.). "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 507–17. p.510
  48. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles;their nature and legacy. Blackwell. p. 260. ISBN 0-631-18946-7.
  49. ^ Stocker, David (1998). "A Hitherto Unidentified Image of the Mithraic God Arimanius at Lincoln?". Britannia. 29: 359–363. doi:10.2307/526833. JSTOR 526833.