The Tauroctony / Photo by CristianChirita, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Wikimedia Commons
The Roman deity Mithras appears in the historical record in the late 1st century A.D., and disappears from it in the late 4th century A.D.
By Dr. Roger Pearse
The Roman deity Mithras appears in the historical record in the late 1st century A.D., and disappears from it in the late 4th century A.D. Unlike the major mythological figures of Graeco-Roman religion, such as Jupiter and Hercules, no ancient source preserves the mythology of the god. All of our information is therefore derived from depictions on monuments, and the limited mentions of the cult in literary sources.
The temples of Mithras were always an underground cave, featuring a relief of Mithras killing the bull. This “tauroctony”, as it is known today, appears in the same format everywhere, but with minor variations. Other standard themes appear in the iconography.
The cult was all male. There were seven degrees of initiation. Different ritual meals were associated with each stage.
The modern study of Mithras begins just before 1900 with Franz Cumont’s Textes et Monuments (TMMM). This two volume work collected all the ancient evidence. Cumont presumed that Mithras was merely the Roman form of the ancient Indo-Persian deity Mitra or Mithra. In the mid-50’s Cumont’s pupil Maarten Vermaseren published a new collection of monuments, the CIMRM, which added the archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years, but also highlighted how poorly the archaeology supported the Cumontian theory. At the 1971 international conference on Mithraic studies, Cumont’s theory was abandoned in favour of a Roman origin for the cult. Vermaseren himself rejected Cumont’s theory in 1975.1
The ancient writer Justin Martyr referred to one of the ritual meals of the cult as being a parody of Christianity. In some speculative passages Cumont sometimes tried to interpret some Mithraic ideas in Christian terms. Consequently various modern myths came into being. These appear as fact in older scholarly literature, and sometimes in non-specialist academic literature even today. For the most part these errors appear in non-scholarly literature.
The Cult Myth
The basic version of the cult myth is attested by literary sources, but, primarily, by depictions in the cult images in the temples. The latter are difficult to interpret.
It is certain that Mithras is born from a rock.2 He is depicted in his temples hunting down and slaying a bull in the tauroctony (see section below). He then meets with the sun, who kneels to him. The two then shake hands, and dine on bull parts. Little is known about the beliefs associated with this.3 The ancient histories of the cult by Euboulos and Pallas have perished.4 The name of the god was certainly given as Mithras (with an ‘s’) in Latin monuments, although Mithra may have been used in Greek.5
Some monuments show additional episodes of the myth. In the paintings at Dura Europos (CIMRM 42), the story begins with Jupiter fighting against the giants. This is followed by a mysterious depiction of a bearded figure reclining against a rock, with the leaves of a tree above. This figure is sometimes thought to be Oceanus. Then the normal myth is depicted. The same episodes appear as a prologue also in CIMRM 1430, a relief from Virunum, and CIMRM 1359 from Germany.
In the painted Mithraeum at Hawarte in Syria, further scenes appear. Mithras is depicted with a chained demon at his feet, while in another scene he is depicted attacking a city manned by the demons. These scenes appear to follow the normal myth.
In antiquity, texts refer to “the mysteries of Mithras”, and to its adherents, as “the mysteries of the Persians.”6 But there is great dispute about whether there is really any link with Persia, and its origins are quite obscure.7
The mysteries of Mithras were not practiced until the 1st century AD.8 The unique underground temples or Mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the 1st century AD.9
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the archaeology includes a great many Mithraea, some of which are rebuilt and enlarged during this period.
It is difficult to trace when the cult of Mithras came to an end. Beck states that “Quite early in the [fourth] century the religion was as good as dead throughout the empire.”10 Inscriptions from the 4th century are few. Clauss states that inscriptions show Mithras as one of the cults listed on inscriptions by pagan senators in Rome as part of the “pagan revival” among the elite.11 There is no evidence that the cult still existed in the 5th century.12
Much about the cult of Mithras is only known from reliefs and sculptures. There have been many attempts to interpret this material.
The Mithraeum at the Baths of Mithras in Ostia Antica / Photo by Michelle Touton, Wikimedia Commons
The architecture of a temple of Mithras is very distinctive.13 Porphyry, quoting the lost handbook of Eubolus14 states that Mithras was worshipped in a rock cave. The Mithraeum reproduces this cave, in which Mithras killed the bull.15 The format of the room involved a central aisle, with a raised podium on either side.16
Mithraic temples are common in the empire; although very unevenly distributed, with considerable numbers found in Rome, Ostia, Numidia, Dalmatia, Britain and along the Rhine/Danube frontier; while being much less common in Greece, Egypt, and Syria.17 More than 420 Mithraic sites have now been identified.18
Mithraea are commonly located close to springs or streams; fresh water appears to have been required for some Mithraic rituals, and a basin is often incorporated into the structure.19 There is usually a narthex or ante-chamber at the entrance, and often other ancillary rooms for storage and the preparation of food. The term mithraeum is modern; in Italy inscriptions usually call it a spelaeum; outside Italy it is referred to as templum.20
In Rome and Italy at least, the temples of Mithras were usually set up in public buildings, rather than private houses.21
Mithras is often depicted by two smaller figures, dressed like himself, bearing torches. These torchbearers are named on the monuments as Cautes and Cautopates.
Also found in some reliefs is a mysterious lion-headed figure, who may perhaps have been called Arimanius.
On various monuments there appears a male figure with a full beard, reclining. This appears to be Oceanus, a personification of the Ocean.
The name Caelus occurs on some monuments, such as where Cautes, Cautopates, Oceanus and Caelus all appear and are named. The Mithraic deity Caelus is sometimes depicted as an eagle bending over the sphere of heaven marked with symbols of the planets or the zodiac.22 In a Mithraic context he is associated with Cautes23 and might perhaps be a Caelus Aeternus (“Eternal Sky”).24 Doro Levi claimed that Ahura-Mazda is invoked in Latin as ”Caelus Aeternus Iupiter”.25 The walls of some mithrea feature allegorical depictions of the cosmos with Oceanus and Caelus. The mithraeum of Dieburg represents the tripartite world with Caelus, Oceanus, and Tellus below Phaeton-Heliodromus.26
Tauroctony from Neuenheim near Heidelberg, with side-panels / Photo by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons
In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull; the so-called tauroctony.27
The image may be a relief, or free-standing, and side details may be present or omitted. The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted bull, holding it by the nostrils with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. As he does so, he looks over his shoulder towards the figure of Sol. A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood.28 A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.29
The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.30 Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down from the sun to touch Mithras. Top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a chariot.
In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.
Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead.31
The Banquet of the Sun
Sol and Mithras banqueting with Luna and the twin divinities Cautes and Cautopates, his attendants. Marble, side B of a two-sided relief from Fiano Romano, 2nd or 3rd century AD. / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons
The second most important scene after the tauroctony in Mithraic art is the so-called banquet scene.32 The two scenes are sometimes sculpted on the opposite sides of the same relief. The banquet scene features Mithras and the Sun god banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered bull. On the specific banquet scene on the Fiano Romano relief, one of the torchbearers points a caduceus towards the base of an altar, where flames appear to spring up. Robert Turcan has argued that since the caduceus is an attribute of Mercury, and in mythology Mercury is depicted as a psychopomp, the eliciting of flames in this scene is referring to the dispatch of human souls and expressing the Mithraic doctrine on this matter. Turcan also connects this event to the tauroctony: the blood of the slain bull has soaked the ground at the base of the altar, and from the blood the souls are elicited in flames by the caduceus.33
The Lion-Headed Figure
Lion-headed god from Ostia / Wikimedia Commons
A unique feature of the Mithraeum is the naked lion-headed figure sometimes found in Mithraic temples.34 He is entwined by a serpent, with the snake’s head often resting on the lion’s head. The lion’s mouth is often open. He is usually represented having four wings, two keys (sometimes a single key) and a scepter in his hand. Sometimes the figure is standing on a globe inscribed with a diagonal cross. A more scarcely represented variant of the figure with a human head is also found. Although animal-headed figures are prevalent in contemporary Egyptian and Gnostic mythological representations, the Leontocephaline is entirely restricted to Mithraic art.35
Although the exact identity of the lion-headed figure is debated by scholars, it is largely agreed that the god is associated with time and seasonal change.36 An example is from the Mithraeum in Sidon.
In one monument only the name Arimanius appears against what seems to be the same figure. This label is probably derived from the Greek translation of the name of the Zoroastrian demon Ahriman. The inscriptions refer to “Arimanius” as “deus” (= “a god”).37
Initiation into the Mysteries of Mithras
Initiation ritual images from Capua Vetere, Italy / Creative Commons
In the Byzantine encylopedia known as the Suda there is an entry “Mithras”, which states that “no one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests.”38 Gregory Nazianzen refers to the “tests in the mysteries of Mithras”.39
A series of five frescos at the Mithraeum of ancient Capua (today Santa Maria Capua Vetere in Campania) depict what may be the rituals for some of the grades of initiation. They are very damaged and hard to interpret. The first shows a blindfolded naked man; in the second he is also kneeling and his hands are bound behind him; in the third he is no longer blindfolded and is being crowned; in the fourth he is being restrained from rising; in the fifth he is lying on the ground as if dead.40
Seven grades of initiation into the mysteries of Mithras are listed by St. Jerome.41 There is probably a connection between the number of grades and the seven planets, and there is evidence commending the priests to the protection of the god for each planet.42 A mosaic in the Ostia Mithraeum of Felicissimus depicts these grades, with heraldic emblems that are connected either to the grades, although they may just be symbols of the planets.43 It has been suggested, however, that most followers of Mithras were simply initiated, and the seven grades are in fact grades of priests.44
The grades are associated in mosaics in the Mithraeum of Felicissimus, Ostia, with certain objects. Three objects are given for each grade; one seems to be the symbol of the grade, while the other two are symbols of the god or goddess.45 In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum in Rome, the grades are listed with an inscription next to each, commending the grade-holder to a planetary deity. This gives us the following infortmation:46
In addition, there is mention in the inscriptions of a pater patrum. This is probably not a higher grade, but instead connected with the fact that there could be several initiates of grade pater, and that one of them became the pater for them all.47 Likewise at one Mithraeum there was a pater leonum, a “Father of the lions”.48 49
Admission into the community was completed with a handshake with the pater, just as Mithras and Sol shook hands. The initiates were thus referred to as syndexioi, those “united by the handshake”.50 The term is used in an inscription51 and derided by Firmicus Maternus52.
The Mithraic Mysteries do not seem to have had a professional clergy. No special terminology for such a position has been found on the monuments. Only the names of the grades of initiation and of the normal offices of a collegium (e.g. sacerdos, antistes, hieroceryx) are attested. No references to a profeta, patophorus, gallus or ”fanaticus” have been found.
Several inscriptions mention a pater (an initiate of the highest grade) or a sacerdos or antistes as individuals in charge, and it seems that the community of initiates was collectively sacerdotal (sacrati). Porphyry (de Abstinentia, 4.16) states that the Mithraic priests were called “ravens”, but this is probably a confusion with the initiation grade of that name. Other mystery cults are known to have elected their “priests” by vote from among themselves, and for some limited period of time, and it has been suggested that the Mithraic communities did likewise.53
Within the framework of Cumont’s theory that the Mithraic Mysteries was “romanized Mazdaism”, in his Dura papers Cumont claimed54 that – while Mithraic priests were elsewhere called sacerdos or antistes – at Dura a Mithraic clergyman was called a magus (which is what – in addition to being the word for a “sorceror” – Zoroastrian priests were called by Greeks and Romans).55 There is no evidence for this. Although the word magus does appear once56 in a three-word graffito at the Dura mithraeum, there is no indication of its significance.57
Mithras and Other Gods
Many Mithraea contain statues dedicated to gods of other cults, and it is common to find inscriptions dedicated to Mithras in other sanctuaries.58 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.59
Statue of Mercury with sheep. Found in 1954 at the east end of the temple of Mithras discovered under Bucklersbury House EC4 London. Mercury escorted the dead from Earth to paradise. He is seated on a rock holding a money bag, his symbol as patron of commerce. He is accompanied by a ram and a tortoise. The ram is a symbol of fertility, the tortoises, whose shells were used to make lyres, may illustrate the eternal happiness or the afterlife as promised by Mithraism. / Museum of London
Mithras is sometimes depicted in a similar manner to the Orphic deity Phanes.
Sol, Helios, Sol Invictus
Mithras is always described as “sol invictus” (the unconquered sun) in inscriptions.60. But Sol and Mithras were different deities.61 The vagueness of the term invictus means that it was used as a title for a number of deities.62 Mithraism never became a state cult, however, unlike the official late Roman Sol Invictus cult.63
Although Mithras himself is called Sol Invictus, “the Unconquered Sun”, he and Sol appear in several scenes as separate persons, with the banquet scene being the most prominent example. 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 Persian cap or the haunch of the bull, in his hand.64
The Mithraea at Carnuntum appear to have been constructed in close association with contemporary temple of Jupiter Dolichenus,65. Two Mithraea were discovered in Doliche in Commagene itself (modern Gaziantep in Turkey). The publishers proposed a date of the 1st century A.D., but generally a 2nd-3rd century date is preferred, and the temples related to Rhine-frontier Mithraea.66
Mithras and Christianity
The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithras is based on a remark by the 2nd century Christian writer, Justin Martyr, who accused the cultists of Mithras of imitating the Christian communion rite.67 Based upon this, Ernest Renan in 1882 depicted two rival religions: “…if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic,”68 But in fact the two groups did not have similar aims, and there was never any chance of this occurring.69
|1||M.J. Vermaseren, “Nuove indagini nell’area della basilica di S. Prisca in Roma”, in Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome. Antiquity, n.s., 37, 2 (1975), pp. 87-96, p.93: “E per quanto riguardali mitraismo vorrei aggiungere subito che secondo la mia modesta opinione questo culto si basa più su concezioni ellenistiche che su un sostrato iranico, come credeva una volta il geniale Franz Cumont.(27) Il famoso studioso belga era dell’opinione che tutti i tratti caratteristici del Mitraismo occidentale derivavano dalla religione iranica e che cos anche il pantheon iranico era rappresentato nelle divinità che riscontriamo nei Mitrei. Questa supposizione vale parzialmente per le iscrizioni di Mithradates Kallinikos e di suo figlio Antioco di Commagene,(28) dove però il contenuto ellenistico, ma non è vera per il Mitraismo come culto sviluppato con misteri.” (As regards Mithraism, I would like to add now that in my humble opinion this cult is based more on hellenistic concepts than on an Iranian substrate, as once believed the brilliant Franz Cumont. (27) The famous Belgian scholar was of the opinion that all the characteristic features of Mithraism derived from the western Iranian religion, and so that the Iranian pantheon was represented in the divinity that we find in Mithraea. This assumption is true in part for inscriptions of Mithradates Kallinikos and his son Antiochus of Commagene,(28) where, however, the content is Hellenistic, but it is not true for Mithraism as a developed cult with mysteries.)|
|2||Commodian, Instructiones 1.13: “The unconquered one was born from a rock, if he is regarded as a god.” Also copious depictions in monuments.|
|3||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. xxi: “we possess virtually no theological statements either by Mithraists themselves or by other writers.”|
|4||Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum tells us of both writers.|
|5||Richard L. Gordon, “The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection)”, Journal of Mithraic Studies 2, 1978, p.148-174. p. 160: “The usual western nominative form of Mithras’ name in the mysteries ended in -s, as we can see from the one authentic dedication in the nominative, recut over a dedication to Sarapis (463, Terme de Caracalla), and from occasional grammatical errors such as deo inviato Metras (1443). But it is probable that Euboulus and Pallas at least used the name Mithra as an indeclinable (ap. Porphyry, De abstinentia II.56 and IV.16).”|
|6||Roger Beck, “Mithraism“, in: Encyclopedia Iranica, 2002.|
|7||See detailed discussion of possible origins.|
|8||Manfred Clauss, tr. Richard Gordon, The Roman cult of Mithras, Edinburgh University Press, 2000, ISBN 074861396X.|
|9||Roger Beck, “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of their Genesis”, Journal of Roman Studies, 1998, 115-128. p. 118.|
|10||Roger Beck, “Merkelbach’s Mithras” in: Phoenix 41 (1987), p. 299. On JSTOR.|
|11||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 29-30: “Mithras also found a place in the ‘pagan revival’ that occurred, particularly in the western empire, in the latter half of the fourth century AD. For a brief period, especially in Rome, the cult enjoyed, along with others, a last efflorescence, for which we have evidence from among the highest circles of the senatorial order. One of these senators was Rufius Caeionius Sabinus, who in 377 dedicated an altar” to a long list of gods including Mithras.|
|12||A supposed reference by Franz Cumont notwithstanding.|
|13||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.43: “The architecture of mithraea is quite special, and its characteristic configuration makes it easy to identify such temples in excavations.”|
|14||Porphyry, De antro nympharum, c. 6.|
|15||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.42: “Because Mithras killed the bull in a cave, his followers likewise performed the ritual reproduction of this saving act in a cave, or rather in a shrine which reproduced that cave, in a spelaeum (‘cave’).”|
|16||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.46: “The cult-room itself (crypta) was constructed according to a traditional scheme, whose design remained virtually constant from Britain to the Black Sea. Its characteristic feature was a central aisle (fig. 7: D) flanked on each side by raised podia (E) for the initiates.”|
|17||A map of locations appears in Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, across pages 26 and 27.|
|18||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.xxi: “The evidence used in this book is essentially the archaeological remains – the Mithraic temples and their contents, the inscriptions and the reliefs, whose iconographic conventions are those of Hellenistic and Roman tradition. Evidence for the cult has been found at some 420 sites. There are about 1,000 inscriptions, and 700 depictions of the bull-killing (only about half of them complete); and in addition 400 monuments with other subjects.”|
|19||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.73: “…the importance of water for all manner of ritual purposes is revealed by the water-basins and cisterns, by the representations of Oceanus, and also by the evident desire to locate temples in the vicinity of a river or a spring. Water-basins were clearly part of the basic equipment of all mithraea.”|
|20||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.22: “The cult spread from Italy, then. In view of the sheer amount of evidence found there, we can probably point specifically to the area of Rome and Ostia. The cult in Rome retained some peculiarities well after the first century AD, though we have no firmly datable monuments from the early period. Among these idiosyncrasies we can list the term spelaeum, ritual cave, for the mithraeum, which was not replaced by the word templum as quickly as in the provinces…”|
|21||Coarelli, “Topografica Mitriaca di Roma”, in: Mysteria Mithrae, ed. U. Bianchi, p.79: “In conclusione, gli edifici collegati con mitrei, e la cui funzione è identificabile, sono tutti o quasi tutti pubblici. Emergono per importanza le caserme (castra peregrina, equitum singularium, praetoria, urbana, stationes vigilum), le terme (terme di Tito, di Caracalla, di Costantino, di Sura, Deciane), le Stabula factionum circensi, gli edifici annonari, le sedi di corporazioni, ecc. Risulta così confermata l’osservazione di Becatti a proposito dei mitrei di Ostia, che risultano inseriti sempre o quasi sempre non in case private, ma in edifici di carattere pubblico.” (In conclusion, the buildings connected with mithraea, and whose function is identifiable, are all or nearly all public buildings. Notably examples are the barracks (castra peregrina, equitum singularium, praetoria, urbana, stationes vigilum), the baths (baths of Titus, Caracalla, of Constantine, Sura, Decius), the stabula factionum circensi, the buildings of the annonari, the homes of the corporations, etc. The observation of Becatti about the mithraea of Ostia, which are always or almost always inserted, not into private homes, but in public buildings, is therefore confirmed.)|
|22||Doro Levi, “Aion”, in: Hesperia (1944), p. 302.|
|23||M.J. Vermaseren, Mithraica I: The Mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere (Brill, 1971), p. 14: “And so Oceanus could be connected with both Cautes (Capua) and Cautopates (Heddernheim): Cautopates was moreover related to Terra and Cautes to Caelus.”; Jaime Alvar, Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, translated by Richard Gordon (Brill, 2008), p. 86: “On an important monument from mithraeum III at Heddernheim/Frankfurt, Cautes is further associated with Caelus, Heaven, and Cautopates with Oceanus.(195)” “195. V. 1127 = Schwertheim 1974, 81 no. 61c. This may however simply be because they are two sets of brothers.”|
|24||R. Beck in response to I.P. Culianu, “L’«Ascension de l’Âme» dans les mystères et hors des mystères,” in La Soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’ impero romano (Brill, 1982), p. 302: “My other point is just to bring in a Mithraic monument, which has not so far figured in our conversations, but which I believe is of great importance, and that is the monument of Ottaviano Zeno, recently edited by Professor Vermaseren (Mithriaca IV, Leiden 1978). Its upper register contains a row of seven altars, with two Aion-typc figures, both entwined with serpents; one is winged, the other not. These two figures and their positions, the one at the extreme left of the row order, the other in the centre, allows one to speculate on the planetary order underlying these otherwise anonymous altars. Professor Vermaseren produces, to my mind, a very plausible set of identifications, seeing the Aion on the left as Saturn, and the Aion in the centre as a type of Jupiter, or rather a Caelus aeternus in the position of Jupiter (pp. 52-53). The question then arises, what order of the planets is implied for the seven altars? These are in fact more than one possible sequence, and others, of course, if one identifies the Aions differently.” No reference is given for the claim.|
|25||Levi, “Aion,” p. 302: “Thus Ahura-Mazda is invoked in Latin as Caelus aeternus Iupiter; and other allegorical representations of the Mithriac Caelus occur in the form of an eagle leaning over the heavenly sphere, adorned with the signs of the planets or with the zodiacal ring.” but no reference is given for the claim. Salomon Reinach, Orpheus: A General History of Religions, translated by Florence Simmonds (London: Heinemann, 1909), p. 68, also claims that Ahura-Mazda was referred to as Caelus by the Romans; again without reference.|
|26||Vermaseren, Mithraica I, p. 14.|
|27||David Ulansey, The origins of the Mithraic mysteries, p. 6: “Although the iconography of the cult varied a great deal from temple to temple, there is one element of the cult’s iconography which was present in essentially the same form in every mithraeum and which, moreover, was clearly of the utmost importance to the cult’s ideology; namely the so-called tauroctony, or bull-slaying scene, in which the god Mithras, accompanied by a series of other figures, is depicted in the act of killing the bull.”|
|28||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.77.|
|29||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.98-9. An image search for “tauroctony” will show many examples of the variations.|
|30||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.74.|
|31||J. R. Hinnells, “The Iconography of Cautes and Cautopates: the Data,” Journal of Mithraic Studies 1, 1976, pp. 36-67. See also William W. Malandra, Cautes and Cautopates in: “Encyclopedia Iranica”.|
|32||Roger Beck, “In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony” in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays, 2004, p. 286-287.|
|33||Roger Beck, “The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire”, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0199216134, p. 27-28.|
|34||R. Dussaud, “Le dieu mithriaque leontocephaline”, Syria 27 (1950), p.253-260. Online here.|
|35||H. von Gall, “The Lion-headed and the Human-headed God in the Mithraic Mysteries,” in Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin ed. Études mithriaques, 1978, p. 511: “Very characteristic of Roman Mithraic art is the type of a naked lion-headed youth. He is entwined by a snake, and the snake’s head usually rests on the lion’s head. The lion’s mouth of this demon is usually open giving a grim and infernal impression. He is mostly represented with four wings, and further attributes are two keys (or one key) and a sceptre in each hand: sometimes he is standing on a globe (fig. 1). It must be stressed that this mythological type is entirely restricted to Mithraic art. Exact parallels are missing in contemporary Egypt and from the composite beings on Gnostic gems, though in both of these cases animal-headed creatures are numerous. There is a variant of the lion-headed Mithraic demon with an entirely human body, which also has a human head. This latter type is more scarcely represented though it must be supposed that some headless statues with a small neck and acccntuated shoulders may have belonged to the human-headed type (pl. XXX).”|
|36||Roger Beck, A reprinted article on the Ponza zodiac in: Beck on Mithraism, Ashgate (2004), p. 194 (original article page no. 110): “The other monuments in which a snake is associated with a zodiac are, significantly, all Mithraic, and for the most part they are monuments of the lion-headed god. There is no need for us to enter into the vexed question of who exactly this deity is. It is sufficient for our purposes ‘that, from the iconography, the god was concerned with time, seasonal change and cosmic power’ (Gordon, 1975: 222), a position that, I believe, few scholars would be inclined to deny. Nor shall I be attempting to prove that proposition, since my argument would then be circular. The association of the lion-headed god with time is established largely through the iconography of snake and zodiac. One cannot therefore argue that the snake and zodiac, as found at Ponza, are symbols of time because they are associated elsewhere with the lion-headed god. Rather, I wish only to demonstrate that, accepting as a premise that the snake with the zodiac is a symbol of time, and in particular of time as defined by the sun’s annual journey.”|
|37||Howard M. Jackson, “The Meaning and Function of the Leontocephaline in Roman Mithraism” in Numen, Vol. 32, Fasc. 1 (Jul., 1985), pp. 17-45. Online here. P.18: “On the provisos, however, that the statue represents a leontocephaline (it does have the usual wings and keys), that the crucial word is correctly restored, and that the word identifies the statue itself, the being’s name was Arimanius, nominally the equivalent of Ahriman, the great Evil One of the Zoroastrian pantheon. In support of this admittedly shaky identification of the leontocephaline there are the facts that Arimanius is known from inscriptions to have figured as a deus in the Mithraic cult (CIMRM #369, an altar from Rome; #1773 with fig 461 and #1775, both from Pannonia) and to have been depicted by some kind of plastic image (signum Arimanium: CIMRM #222, from Ostia).”|
|38||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.102. The Suda reference given is 3: 394, M 1045 Adler.|
|39||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.102. The Gregory reference given is to Oratio 4, 70.|
|40||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.102-3. The frescos are CIMRM 187, 188, 191, 194 and 193.|
|41||Jerome, Letters 107 ch. 2, (To Laeta): “… did not your own kinsman Gracchus whose name betokens his patrician origin, when a few years back he held the prefecture of the City, overthrow, break in pieces, and shake to pieces the grotto of Mithras and all the dreadful images therein? Those I mean by which the worshippers were initiated as Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Perseus, Sun, Crab, and Father?”|
|42||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.33: “They stand in some relation to the planets: their number, seven, must have inspired the number of grades. In the important mithraeum beneath S. Prisca in Rome frescoes were discovered with figures depicting the different grades, each with a dipinto beside it commending the priests to the protection of the different planetary gods. They all begin with the word nama, a word, as we have seen (p. 8), of Persian origin, representing a particularly solemn form of greeting.”|
|43||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 133: “Further evidence is offered by the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia, where there is a mosaic floor to the central aisle, divided into seven panels each with devices akin to heraldic emblems (fig. 9). We may surmise that they are related to the grades, though it is possible that are just symbols of the planets.”|
|44||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.131: “Although it is not always clearly stated, most previous accounts assume that all Mithraists were members of one grade or another. … Should we not rather conclude that in the cult there were, on the one hand, the great majority of Mithraists, who were simply initiated once, and, on the other, a small group of holders of the different grades, whom it would be appropriate to speak of as ‘priests’?”|
|45||This seems to be the logical inference from the description given by Clauss, although unfortunately this is less clear for the first two grades.|
|46||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.133-138|
|47||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.138: “The name of C. Accius Hedychrus occurs on four different votives at Emerita in Lusitania (Merida, Spain). Two he himself donated, but in the case of the two others he simply gave his approval, and in them he is referred to as pater (V 774, 793). In his own inscriptions, he calls himself once pater (V 781, fig. 115) and once p(ater) patrum (V 779). This last is probably not a higher grade, but is to be connected with the fact that there could be several Fathers in one congregation, so one of them became the ‘Father of (the) Fathers’.”|
|48||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.136: “Another Umbrian Mithraist, at Sentinum (Sentino), bore the title pater leonum, ‘Father of the Lions’, which also suggests a rather large number of them there (V 688).”|
|49||At this point in the Wikipedia article are several paragraphs of rubbish, cunningly disguised to look authoritative. Consult this article for details.|
|50||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.152: “The pact between the deities was the model for a ceremony that concluded the acceptance of new members into the Mithraic community: the initiates were termed syndexioi, ‘those who have been united by a handshake’ (with the Father) (p. 105).”|
|51||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 42: “That the hand-shaken might make their vows joyfully forever” referencing CIMRM 423, dedicated by a certain Proficentius.|
|52||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p. 105: “the followers of Mithras were the ‘initiates of the theft of the bull, united by the handshake of the illustrious father.” (Err. prof. relig. 5.2)|
|53||A.D. Nock, “The Genius of Mithraism”, Journal of Roman Studies 27.1, 1937, pp.109-110|
|55||R.L. Gordon, “Who worshipped Mithras?”, Journal of Roman Archaeology 7, 1994, p.461: “Cumont’s story relied on the existence of a coherent priesthood of magi, who were supposed to have transmitted authentic Iranian teaching to the west in late 1st c.”|
|56||Gordon 1994:n16 “only one acclamation graffito containing the word”|
|57||A.D. Nock, “The Genius of Mithraism”, Journal of Roman Studies 27.1, 1937, pp.109-110; M.Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, 2000, p.139: “There are no priests in the west who called themselves magi.”; R.L. Gordon, “Who worshipped Mithras?”, Journal of Roman Archaeology 7, 1994, p.461. cf. Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont”, ANRW II.17.4, 1984, p.2018-2019|
|58||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.158: “There are many examples illustrating the readiness of Mithraists to worship other divinities. … The range of Graeco-Roman divinities to whom votives were offered in mithraea is quite considerable. … Of all these deities, I would just like to stress the significance of Mercury for many Mithraic congregations.”|
|59||Walter Burkert, “Ancient Mystery Cults”, Harvard University Press, 1987, ISBN 0674033876, p.49.|
|60||Clauss, p.146: “Roman Mithras is the invincible sun-god, Sol Invictus. This is the burden, repeated a hundred times over, of the votive inscriptions from the second to the fourth centuries AD, whether in the form Sol Invictus Mithras, or Deus Sol Invictus Mithras, or Deus Sol Mithras, or Sol Mithras. There do not seem to be any significant regional or temporal variations among such formulae. In the very earliest epigraphic evidence for the Roman cult of Mithras, the god is already invoked as Sol Invictus Mithras. These facts are confirmed by the numerous votive offerings to Sol, Deus Sol, Sol Invictus, and Deus Invictus Sol which were put up in mithraea.”; Clauss, p.79: “Victory is what characterises the god; his one unvarying epithet is Invictus.”|
|61||Clauss, p.147: “On the other hand, however, Mithras and Sol are two separate deities, as can amply be demonstrated.”; p.148: “Mithras is Sol, and at the same time Sol is Mithras’ companion. Paradoxical relationships of this kind are to be found between many deities in antiquity. People in the ancient world did not feel bound by fixed credos and confessions which had to be consistent to the last detail: in the area of religion, a truly blessed anarchy held sway.”|
|62||Erika Manders, Coining Images of Power: Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors on Imperial Coinage, A.D. 193-284, Brill, 2012, p.130: “Sol, however, did not have the exclusive right to appear as pacator orbis and invictus on third-century coins. Jupiter, Aurelian, Probus and Numerian appear as pacator orbis too, while, apart from Sol, other gods (Jupiter, Hercules and Mars) received the epithet invictus.” References are given to coin types.|
|63||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.23-4: “The cult of Mithras never became one of those supported by the state with public funds, and was never admitted to the official list of festivals celebrated by the state and the army – at any rate, in so far as the latter is known to us from the Feriale Duranum, the religious calendar of the units at Dura-Europos in Coele Syria; the same is true of all other mystery cults too. This of course does not exclude the possibility that the emperors and their circle may have felt a more than casual personal sympathy for the cult, but they certainly tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, their subjects’ adherence.”|
|64||Roger Beck, “In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony” in Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays (2004), p. 286-287.|
|65||Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.44: “One could also include Jupiter Dolichenus here: not only have votives to him been discovered in mithraea (V 1208), but Mithraic inscriptions and cult-reliefs have been found in dolichena (V 70, p. 157; V 468-70; 1729).”|
|66||See the article on the Doliche Mithraea for details.|
|67||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.”|
|68||E. Renan, Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579: “On peut dire que, si le christianisme eût été arrêté dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eût été mithriaste.”|
|69||J. A. Ezquerra and R. Gordon, Romanising oriental Gods: myth, salvation and ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Brill, 2008, p.202-3: “Many people have erroneously supposed that all religions have a sort of universalist tendency or ambition. In the case of Mithraism, such an ambition has often been taken for granted and linked to a no less questionable assumption, that there was a rivalry between Mithras and Christ for imperial favour. … If Christianity had failed, the Roman empire would never have become Mithraist.” Google books preview here.|
- Roger Beck, “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998 (1998) , pp. 115-128.
- Roger Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp.2002-2115. Important summary of the changes to Mithras scholarship.
- Roger Beck, Beck on Mithraism: Collected works with new essays. Ashgate, 2004. Google Books preview here.
- Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras: the god and his mysteries, Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 198. ISBN 0-415-92977-6 here. An excellent concise view of the current consensus.
- Franz Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra : pub. avec une introduction critique, 2 vols. 1894-6. Abbreviated as TMMM. Vol. 1 is an introduction, now obsolete. Vol. 2 is a collection of primary data, online at Archive.org here, and still of some value.
- Richard Gordon, Frequently asked questions about the cult of Mithras. Some common misconceptions, and the comments of a professional Mithras scholar.
- John Hinnells (ed.), Proceedings of The First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press (1975).
- Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras: ein persisch-römischer Mysterienkult, 1994. Google books preview here.
- Robert Turcan, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000.
- David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1989. An interesting account, widely read online, but not accepted by scholars.
- Maarten J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1956, 2 vols. Abbreviated as CIMRM. The standard collection of Mithraic reliefs.