The Mirror of Mithras

P Sufenas Virius Lupus

Over the last century or so, a great deal has been said about the god Mithras and his mysteries, which became known to the European world mainly through his Roman cultus during the Imperial Period.  Though forms and cognates of the theonym “Mithras” can be found in some very ancient Indo-European sources (including Indian and Iranian sources dating back to the second millennium BCE) as a god generally associated with contractual matters, laws, oaths, and the like, the deity that was most readily identified as Mithras in the Roman cult does not seem to have much in common with these Indo-Iranian cognates.

Because the Mithraic cult during the Roman period was a mystery tradition, the membership of the cult was sworn to utter secrecy as to the content of its rituals and their meaning; however, the various mithraea located across the Empire, their many cultic sculptural reliefs and inscriptions, and the “Mithras Liturgy” found in the Greek Magical Papyri have all survived and have been freely available for study by scholars for several generations now, which has been both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing that any religious remnants from the time before Constantinian and Theodosian Christianity suppressed all non-Christian (and many non-mainstream-Christian) religious activities and associations, and thus this equally applies to Mithraic remains as to those of any other ancient or late antique cult.  However, the vagueness and uncertainty associated with interpreting this information, and how (if at all) inscriptions, pictorial narratives, liturgical snippets, and the information given in some Christian and late antique philosophical prose writings all illuminate one another is a contested and difficult issue.

Because there can be no certainty with the remains which are available to us currently, what often seems to be the case is that Mithras and his mysteries function as a mirror for reflecting back the ideas and theological notions of those doing the interpretation, rather than actually yielding up any of their secrets.  This essay, therefore, will attempt to discuss several of these trends of Mithras being a reflection of the “light” of other traditions, rather than shedding any light of his own through these interpretations.

The idea that, had Christianity not become the religion which was made dominant by political fiat in the fourth century CE, that “we all might be Mithraists” is, while an intriguing statement, very much an overstatement.  The cult never had persistent imperial backing; and in any case, in a world in which, as Symmachus said, “There is no single way to the Truth,” and in which polytheism tended to multiply one’s options for devotion and relationship with deities rather than contracting them or institutionalizing them, Mithraism and the salvation offered through its mysteries was merely one possible path among many which were generally viewed as equally valid.  Further, the cult seems to have been restricted to an exclusively male membership, and female divinities play little or no role in the entire edifice most often.

Yet, great mileage has been obtained from the idea that Mithraism was the primary rival to Christianity, and that in fact there was an influence on Christianity by Mithraism, which included such details as the “virgin birth” of Mithras in a cave, his twelve disciples, the importance of a sacred meal, and his death and resurrection.  Unfortunately, most of these details (and others besides) are either inflated or invented.  It is unknown how Mithras was conceived, but his birth is always depicted as being from the earth, often called in scholarly circles the “rock birth” motif.  The earth itself, as the ultimate fecund and fertile ground of all life on earth, cannot be said to be “virginal” in any definitive sense, and it is in any case unknown how (if at all) Mithras was conceived in what precipitated his emergence from the rock.  The so-called “twelve disciples” is a misunderstanding of the twelve signs of the zodiac, which are often arranged around the deity in certain iconographic depictions; and though figures possibly related to these constellations (like the bull, a scorpion, and the twins Cautes and Cautopates) do appear consistently in Mithraic iconography, some are clearly not “disciples” (the bull which Mithras slays in the most important iconic representations is clearly not a “disciple”!) in any conventional sense.  While a sacred meal does seem to have taken place amongst Mithraic groups in their mithraea on a regular basis (and we even know, for example, that certain groups must have enjoyed cherries as part of this meal, due to the large number of cherry pits found in waste piles from within certain mithraea), this is no different from a great number of religious organizations and activities in the ancient world—the early Christians certainly don’t have the monopoly on the idea of sharing a sacred and symbolic meal, but neither do the Mithraic cultists.  And, it is not clear how, if at all, Mithras ever “died” or “was resurrected” in the information we have available to us at present.

The coincidence of the birth of Sol Invictus being celebrated in the late Roman Imperial period on December 25, which was adopted into Christian practice and reinterpreted as the date of Jesus’ birth (supposedly in a cave from a virgin!), and that Sol Invictus was syncretized to Mithras (and yet also remained a separate figure to him in most of the iconic remains which have survived), has lead many scholars and not-very-subtle Christian debunkers to jump to conclusions that are ridiculous.  The idea, for example, that anything “pagan” is in some sense ahistorical and ancient, and therefore always “pre-Christian,” simply isn’t tenable with most of the information we have on the Roman Mithraic cult:  the bulk of remains for it do not date back any further than the end of the first century and beginning of the second century CE—in other words, a generation or two after the identifiable emergence of Christianity.

And yet, some hilarity can come from such ideas as well.  On the British quiz show QI, there was a segment on Mithraism, which repeated many of these inaccuracies as fact.  The comedienne Jo Brand made light of the entire matter in one of her comments to the effect of “Well, you can tell that cult was never going to take off—how many blokes do you know who are about to have an orgasm yell out ‘Mithras!’”  Indeed!  (And, as far as I’m aware, Mithras’ sexual activities or lack thereof with any gender seems to be a noticeable absence in his overall mythology and iconography, which may have interesting implications for the lives of his worshippers…but I digress!  More on this topic later.)

Looking at this process of (pseudo-) comparison and interpretation, we see that the “mirror of Mithras” functions in a manner that in essence reflects the notions present in those interpreting Mithras.  Because Christianity was a successful cult and had various “mysteries of faith” associated with it, it was assumed that these same things had to have been a part of the Mithraic narrative.  The “mystery” of the incarnation of Jesus had to have a parallel in Mithras’ birth from a virgin; the “mystery” of his godly identity shared with a small group of initial followers had to have a parallel in the “twelve disciples”; the “mystery” of death and resurrection, as commemorated through a communal meal, must have been exactly what the Mithraic cultists were doing in their communal meals.  (So, what do the cherries represent?  “Take these cherries and eat them—these are my eyes, and this way I can see inside of you if you eat them…but don’t worry about the pits, because I didn’t consider those when I made up this metaphor, and you don’t eat them anyway…”?!?)

Another area in which Mithraic remains have been interpreted (and perhaps over-interpreted) is in terms of their astrological connections.  The idea that the Mithraic tauroctony icon that is central to all mithraea (and presumably to their rituals and mythologies) represents the transition from the Taurian to the Arian age in c. 2000 BCE, and the various precessions of the equinoxes since then (turning from Arian to Piscean in c. 1 CE, and to the Age of Aquarius at some stage during this century—possibly having already occurred), thus may demonstrate either that the cult originated in those remote times, or simply that the cult members in the Roman period were aware of this incremental celestial movement.

Several theories have come to light in terms of how the other symbols in Mithraic iconography can be understood.  One theory by Michael P. Speidel (in Mithras-Orion:  Greek Hero and Roman Army God [Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1980]) states that the equatorial constellations at the time of the promulgation of the cult were included in the various representations, which would end up identifying the figure of Mithras with the Greek hero Orion.  A number of striking similarities exist between Orion and aspects of the Mithraic narrative (as implied by its iconography), including his birth from a bull skin infused with varios deities’ semen, his blinding and restoration by Helios, and his hunting of a bull.  However, another interpretation by David Ulansey (The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries:  Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World [New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1989]) argues fundamentally the same thing, but interprets the elements differently, and instead identifies Mithras not with the constellation and mythological figure of Orion, but instead with Perseus, who was a prominent hero in the area of Asia Minor where Ulansey suggests the cultus arose (among the Cilician pirates), and also accounts for the Persian origins and language of parts of the cult practice, as well as the rank of “Persian” in the stages of initiation, since Perseus was held to be the ancestor to the Persian race.  Ulansey also identified two suns involved in the myth:  Mithras-Helios/Sol Invictus, and then Helios/Sol Invictus on his own as, respectively, the noetic sun (Mithras) that illuminates the entire “middle world” of the upper cosmos, whereas the physical sun (Sol/Helios) merely governs the lower cosmic reaches of the present physical world.  Personally, the idea of the hypercosmic sun is appealing from Ulansey’s interpretations; however, the idea that Mithras and Perseus are synonymous, and the syncretism of one to the other is the key to the Mithraic mysteries is less convincing.  Speidel’s theory of a possible Orion identification is highly intriguing and attractive, but there is not enough evidence to support its unqualified acceptance at this point.

Interestingly, Neos Alexandria’s own inspiring agathos daimon, Sannion, suggested something very fascinating which demonstrates this “mirror of Mithras” quite plainly.  As a devotee of Hermes, he suggested that there are many similarities between Mithras and Hermes, including the following points, which are worth quoting in extenso:

Mithras’ name is derived from the Iranian word for treaty, covenant and Hermes was the god of messengers and diplomats; Mithras was born from a rock, Hermes is the god of the rock-pile; the principle mythological action that Mithras is associated with is the slaying of a bull which instituted cosmic order, just as Hermes established his godhead by slaying the cattle of Apollon and instituting sacrifice which brought harmony to Olympos; Mithras was worshipped in caves, just as Hermes was; one of the orders of Mithraic initiates was nymphus, and Hermes is famously connected with the nymphai; another was raven, and birds of omen are sacred to Hermes; a dog follows closely by Mithras, just as the dog is the companion and alternate form of Hermes; Mithras’ cult was brought to Rome by pirates, and Hermes is the god of thieves, and so forth.

This is an astounding number of similarities, all things considered, and indeed it does make the comparisons between Mithras and Jesus seem paltry and superficial.  However, Sannion went on to say the following:  “All of this, of course, is speculative and superficial,” and “Anyone who knows anything of Hermes and Mithras would never mistake the one for the other.”  While all very true, it seems that Hermes and Mithras are having the last laugh, because—in fact!—Hermes and Mithras were syncretized in certain cases in his ancient cultus!  Hermes/Mercury was found in assocation with Mithras in many locations, and inscriptions to the god are found in a variety of locations in mithraea; but in at least two occasions in Germania, there are statues depicting Mithras-Mercury, and there is also one inscription reading Deo Invicto Mithrae Mercurio (Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras:  The God and His Mysteries, trans. Richard Gordon [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000], pp. 158-159).

On the matter of Mithras and sexuality, we go from the ridiculous to the sublime.  A book by Lukas Scott called Legion of Lust (Zipper Books, 2004) portrayed a character called Titus, who was a Roman legionary soldier eventually sent to Britain after the revolt of Boudica, who is initiated into the Mithraic mysteries quite rapidly before his final departure.  However, these initiations are all sexual in nature, and the Mithraic society is portrayed as one of decadence and hedonism.  There is nothing inherently wrong with decadence or hedonism, certainly, and cultic sexuality is not unheard of, nor unappealing in its own way (!); however, it seems very unlikely indeed that the Mithraic cult would have been a homoerotic one.  (The Orion interpretation of Speidel, which would feature Zeus, Hermes and Poseidon inseminating a bull’s skin to conceive the hero, is certainly suggestive, but by no means definitive, and certainly cannot be extrapolated to extend to cultic ritual or behavior.)

A further, rather unfortunate, interpretation of a homoerotic component to the Mithraic mysteries has emerged in the Ecclesia Antinoi (a gay-exclusive form of pagan salvational monotheism), in which an icon was produced of Antinous-Mithras (, only he is slaying the goat of the Arian age instead of the bull.  In fact, of the many deities to whom Antinous was syncretized, Mithras is not one of them, as far as current information allows.  This misunderstanding came about because a list of divine names was ham-fistedly extracted from the index of Royston Lambert’s book Beloved and God:  The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (New York:  Viking, 1984), in which Mithras is mentioned; but, ignoring the original context of the appearance of the deity’s name in the text, the parties responsible assumed that Antinous was syncretized to this deity as well.  Because Antinous had mysteries celebrated in his honor, it was concluded, they “must” have been the same as those of Mithras.  Again, the “mirror of Mithras” reflects only what the person gazing into it already thinks or wishes to see, rather than shedding any light on the actuality of his mysteries or identity.

While I would not argue in any persuasive manner that anything in the Mithraic cultus, as it is now available to and interpretable by us, would suggest that homoeroticism was an essential part of it, at the same time, a recent interpretation of the “Mithraic Liturgy” from the Greek Magical Papyri does suggest that there may be something to the lack of feminine divine presences in the cultus, and of female membership, which may have to do with a resistance to the idea of women as birth-givers.  Radcliffe G. Edmonds III has written an article (“At the Seizure of the Moon:  The Absence of the Moon in the Mithras Liturgy,” in Scott Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler [eds.], Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World [University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003], pp. 223-239) in which he suggests that the ritual rubric of the liturgy stating that it should be performed during the “seizure of the Moon,” which is to say during the dark moon, when our lunar satellite is not visible in the sky, is in essence an attempt to escape the “gravitational pull” of the moon as a celestial agent in bringing souls to birth and genesis on the earth.  The goal of the magical operation in the Mithras Liturgy is to ascend to the celestial realms and to meet with the god Mithras in his solar aspect, and to be under the influence of the moon and its supremacy over the entire “sublunary” realm would confound this intention.  The bull, as a symbol of Taurus and connected to the moon, is also perhaps sacrificed in the tauroctony sequence in order to facilitate this ascension by the cultist.  As the moon was understood to be a feminine divinity in both Greek and Roman contexts (Selene and Luna respectively), thus a bias against women and their capacity as those who give birth, enters into the picture in this interpretation (though this is not stated by Edmonds—but, very interestingly, something similar is spelled out in Alan Moore’s From Hell in chapter four, where Mithras is never mentioned, but many other solar deities are, in the constant battle postulated between lunar, feminine, Dionysian consciousness and solar, masculine, Apollonian consciousness).  Leaping to the conclusion that, therefore, homoeroticism would have been a norm for Mithraic practitioners, though, does not seem likely.

Thus, we see that Mithras often does not yield up his secrets easily (or at all!), and that, like Plato’s denizens of the cave in The Republic (to which comparisons have often been drawn with Mithraic cultic locations as well as ideas), we who are not Mithraic initiates only see mere long shadows cast by images dancing before a fire that, no matter how bright or brilliant, is still not the true light of the deity himself.  Like those prisoners in the cave who are taken out of it, we can still only see shadows or reflections in water when we have seriously studied the cult remains and the cultural contexts from which they originate.  And with this, we must be content.  Perhaps not unlike Ulansey’s suggestion as well, Mithras in this way is like Perseus, with his mirror-shield, which defended him from Medusa’s deadly gaze, and has continued to protect him from being turned into mere stone, ossified and forever static and concrete, and silent, never changing or interacting with the viewer (or worshipper) and yielding the blinding truths of his mysteries.  We who fling our theories at Mithras’ mirror, like Medusa, are in danger of dazzling ourselves overmuch in error, and perhaps even becoming stone ourselves in mistaking our theories for the truths which the god may still yet impart to those who undergo the proper preparations and initiations to understand and experience them.


6 Responses to The Mirror of Mithras

  1. Mike Crahart says:

    “There is nothing inherently wrong with decadence or hedonism…”

    You may wan’t to reconsider this statement?

    • Why?

      One person’s interests or normal way of working is another’s “decadence”–there’s a lot of people who are perfectly fine with, for example, having relationships with people of their same gender, who would be characterized by others as being “decadent” in the understanding that decadence implies everything that person can think of as negative. Commercials for chocolate candies regularly use the word “decadent” to describe them…so, by your logic, should we all avoid chocolate as a result?

      Hedonism, in itself, isn’t necessarily “bad” either. A lot of people are more motivated by things that they like and that they find pleasurable than they are by things that they wish to avoid and that are painful or uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t prefer an extra hour of sleep, an extra helping of dessert, and an extra consensual and desired sexual encounter above what they normally have now and again? If that is the case, and if all of those things are understood as “pleasurable,” is anyone therefore who would like those things from time to time a hedonist? Or, “worse” still, what if someone had the chance to get those things, and exerted active effort in the pursuit of them, for the merest chance to have them–is that an even more dedicated hedonist? In some people’s definitions, they would be…and, as they are not necessarily hurting anyone or anything else by pursuing these things, I don’t see how it could be a problem. Mindless and excessive hedonism has its drawbacks and its dangers, certainly, and I would advise against overindulgence as a result; but, asceticism also has its drawbacks and its dangers, and yet the latter gets praised quite often as a spiritual virtue and is rarely questioned or critiqued.

      So, I stand by these statements. Perhaps you don’t, but then again, you didn’t write this piece. It’s fine to disagree, but unless you have some substantive arguments on why you do, I see no reason to reconsider the position I’ve (very briefly) outlined.

  2. Pingback: PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity « Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

  3. Petros says:

    The link to your other article, “Mithras’ Initiation” no longer works. I don’t suppose you have it posted somewhere else?
    Good article by the way!

    • That is a link to an outside source; in this case, as P. Sufenas Virius Lupus point out below, a poem. We can either remove it (as a dead link) or update it (to the new page). I will look around online and see if I can find it. 🙂

  4. It was a poem, not an article; they have not updated the website in a. long time, so they might not even have it any longer…and honestly, I might not even have a file for it either, unfortunately.

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