Mithras 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. 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.
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. 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.
Comparisons with contemporary Roman gods
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'.
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. 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'."
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. Further references also exist.
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. 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. One peculiar scene shows Sol kneeling before Mithras, who holds an object, interpreted either as a Phrygian cap or the haunch of the bull, in his hand.
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.
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 in 274 under Aurelian, the Mithraic cult (as all other mystery cults) did not receive state sanction. Under Commodus rule (r. 180-192 AD), the title invictus became a standard part of imperial titulature, but this was an adoption from Hercules Invictus, not from either Sol or Mithras.
The Mithraea at Carnuntum appear to have been constructed in close association with contemporary temple of Jupiter Dolichenus, 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 intitiates. Two large Mithrea have been discovered in Doliche itself (modern Gaziantep in Turkey), which have been proposed as being unusually early.
Mithraism and Christianity
The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithraism is based on a remark in the 2nd-century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion rite. 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." 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."
Christian apologists, among them Ronald Nash and Edwin Yamauchi, 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.
It is said that the birth of Mithras was a virgin birth, like that of Jesus. David Ulansey speculates that this was a belief derived from the Perseus myths, which held he was born from an underground cavern.
25th of December
It is often stated that Mithras was thought to have been born on December 25. But Beck states that this is not the case. In fact he calls 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."
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. 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.".
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.
A painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum (c A.D. 200) 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. According to Robert Turcan, 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.
Symbolism of water
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".
Sign of the cross
Tertullian states that followers of Mithras were marked on their forehead in an unspecified manner. 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. 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
From the end of the 18th century some scholars have suggested that certain elements in medieval Christian art reflect images found in Mithraic reliefs. Franz Cumont was among these scholars, although he studied each motif in isolation rather than in context. 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".
A series of scholars have since discussed possible similarities with Mithraic reliefs in medieval Romanesque art. 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. 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.
- Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.158.
- Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 49. ISBN 0-674-03387-6.
- Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70
- 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 and Who is Theon of Smyrna?.
- Clauss, M. The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 70, photo p.71. The relief (Vermaseren 860) is now at the University of Newcastle.
- Ulansey, David, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, pp.120-1. Excerpts here .
- 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.
- 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
- Beck, Roger, "In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays" (2004), p. 286-287].
- Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.23-4. "Invictus" became a standard part of imperial titulature under Commodus, adopted from Hercules Invictus, but had been used for Mithras well before then.
- Clauss, M., The Roman cult of Mithras, p.44.
- 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."
- Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579
- Edwin M. Yamauchi cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.175
- Ronald Nash, "Mystery Religions of the Near East," Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 1999.
- Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?" March 29, 1974.
- 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.
- Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1989
- Beck, Roger (1987). "Merkelbach's Mithras". Phoenix 41 (3): 296–316. doi:10.2307/1088197., p. 299, n. 12.
- Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-674-03387-6.
- 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 ..."
- Hijmans, Steven (2003). "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas". Mouseion 3 (3): 377–398.
- Panciera, Il materiale epigrafico dallo scavo del mitreo di S. Stefano Rotondo, in: Mysteria Mithrae (conference 1978 published 1979).
- 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
- Beck, Roger, Merkelbach's Mithras, p.301-2
- Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.71-2.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- Cumont, Franz (1956). McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), ed. The Mysteries of Mithras. Dover Publications. pp. 227–8.
- 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
- Vermaseren, M.J (1963). Mithras: The Secret God. Chatto & Windus. pp. 104–6.
- 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