The god Mithra Mithra was originally a Persian deity considered to be the mediator between mankind and Ahura Mazda, god of light. This god overcame evil and brought life, both animal and vegetable, to humankind. Statues of Mithra characteristically show him holding a bull by the nostrils while plunging a knife into its neck. The Romans identified Mithra with the sun god. December 25 was celebrated as his birthday. Three traditions relate the birth of Mithra: (1) he was born of an incestuous relationship between Ahura Mazda and his own mother; (2) he was born of an ordinary mortal; (3) Mithra was born from a rock. After his redemptive work on earth was finished, Mithra partook of a last supper with some of his devotees and then ascended to heaven, where he continues to assist the faithful in their struggle against demons.
The religion of Mithra Since Mithraism belongs to the general category known as Mystery Religions, our knowledge of its specific doctrines and rituals is very limited. Only devotees of the religion were allowed to witness its rituals or have access to its sacred doctrines. Most of our knowledge, therefore, consists of inferences drawn from artifacts and places of worship discovered by archaeologists.
Characteristics of Mithraism Mithraism was basically a religion of the common people, although at least one Roman emperor (Commodius, 180-192 A.D.) was initiated into its mysteries. It was the only mystery religion which excluded women from membership. It had no professional clergy. Its seven stages of initiation prepared the initiate for ascent to the god of light. These stages corresponded to the seven planetary spheres through which one must ascend to reach the abode of the blessed: the Raven, the Occult, the Soldier, the Lion, the Persian, the Runner of the Sun, and the Father. Male children were allowed to participate in the lower stages.
Rituals In its ancient rural setting the actual slaying of a bull was part of the ritual. The initiate was placed in a pit covered by an iron grate. The bull was slain on the grate, and the initiate attempted to catch its sacred blood with his tongue. By the time the religion reached the Roman Empire, this act seems to have become mere symbolism. Beyond this, we know almost nothing except that bas-reliefs depict celebrants carrying counterfeit heads of animals, Persians, etc. This suggests the wearing of costumes corresponding to the stage of initiation.
A rival to Christianity Of all the mystery religions, Mithraism became the strongest rival to Christianity. Its rivalry with Christianity may be explained by common external features. Among the more prominent are: December 25 the god's birthday, Sunday the holy day, baptism, a sacred meal, categorical ethics, belief in a final judgment with eternal life for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, and that the world would finally be destroyed by fire. See Mystery Religions.
Joe E. Lunceford