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Cultores Mithrae. Die Anhangerschaft Des Mithras-Kultes

Manfred Clauss

The starting point of this study of the initiation into the cult of Mithras are the 462 sites where traces of the cult have been found to date. They form the framework of the study.

Mithras is one of many in the pantheon of ancient gods, related to many, identical to many. The cult of Mithras offered one of many possibilities for finding community, cultic experience or salvation. In order to place the results of this study in their proper context, it should be stressed at the outset that probably only a few percent of the total population of the Empire was initiated into these mysteries. Alföldy has recently stated that votive inscriptions to the so-called Oriental deities, to which Mithras is generally included, account for no more than 10% of the total material.

The cult spread from Britain to the Black Sea area, from the Rhine to the Nile, over the course of almost three centuries, as the conditions of the Imperium Romanum changed. This means that although the main doctrines and the most important elements were the same everywhere, the cult underwent numerous transformations. This was facilitated by the fact that it did not have a supra-regional organisation, allowing its followers to be very flexible in their small communities. There was an abundance of local and regional characteristics and influences, which were different on the Rhine than on the Nile. This makes it difficult to talk about the cult of Mithras and its followers. We have a more or less good grasp of the groupings in the individual sanctuaries, and these are often very differently structured.

Mystery cults in particular were able to establish a close personal relationship between God and man, but this is not tangible in the only sources we have, the dedicatory inscriptions. Since we are dealing with a Roman cult, their texts do not differ from other dedicatory inscriptions. Thus, we learn little about the religious motives in the strict sense of the word. The texts seldom mention the reason for a vow; even those of the followers of Mithras are silent about it, because the two 'parties' that mattered, the god and the founder, knew about it. Announcing to the deity that one had fulfilled one's vows was, in any case, only one occasion for a dedication inscription, and probably not even the most important one in Roman society.

As with public inscriptions, the dedication of stone monuments within the small cult community of the Mithraea could have been purely routine. Often, however, the purpose of the donation was to demonstrate one's financial capacity, even if only a few could see it, and to document one's social rank, occasionally the degree of priesthood one had attained. Although we can always expect to find several motives for dedications, the religious concern of the consecration usually took a back seat to others. Only the often abbreviated name of the deity D(eo) I(nvicto) M(ithrae) and the final formula v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) point to this concern. Between these phrases was the most important thing: the information about the person, his rank and what he had done for the community - and for his God. Such monuments thus say little about religious sentiment, but they do make a sociological study like this one possible. In contrast to analyses of the social history of Christianity, for example, there is a lack of literary evidence for the cult of Mithras, so inscriptions are the most important source material.


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