Mithra is one of the most remote Indo-European divinities, member of the known pantheon and common between northern India and Iran. The first document found that mentions its name is from the second millennium B.C. It is a clay tablet from Boghaz-Köy, in present-day Turkey, which was the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire. In it, Mitra is invoked as guarantor of an agreement established between the Hittites and a neighboring people, the Mitanians.
The term Sanskrit Mitra, like the Iranian Zoroastrian Mitra, comes from the hypostasis Proto-Indo-Irania *mitra, which means contract. In the Indian subcontinent, Mitra is the protector of honesty, friendship, as well as contracts and meetings. Mitra is one of the figures appearing in Rigveda where he is intimately associated with Varuna.
In the Iranian tradition, since the reform of Zarathustra, Mithra (Miθra) is considered a yazata, i.e., a divinity, of the covenants and of the given word. By extension, Mithra is the protector of truth, among other functions of agrarian origin.
The term Mithra evolved into Mehr, Myhr, from which the current Mihr in Persian is derived. The tenth Yasht of the Avesta, the Persian sacred text, is entirely dedicated to him and defines him as "Mitra, the lord of broad pastures, with a thousand ears, a thousand eyes, a Yazata invokes him by his own name [...]".
Later, Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, reveals to Zarathustra: "Truly, when I created Mithra, the lord of broad pastures, or Spitama! I created him as worthy of sacrifice, as worthy of prayer as I myself, Ahura Mazda". Since then, in the Zoroastrian calendar, the sixth day of the month and the seventh month of the year are consecrated to him, of which Mitra/Mihr is protector.
The origins of the Roman Mithras
Given its universality and antiquity, there is no consensus among researchers on the origins of Roman Mithraism, better known as the Mysteries of Mithra. According to Franz Cumont, the first great modern scholar of the Persian mysteries, it would be the Romanized form of the Mazdeist or Zoroastrian religion. Cumont following the trail left by Plutarch (Pompey, 29), states that pirates installed in Cilicia, south of Turkey today, already practiced Mithraic mysteries in 60 BC. These were sent as slaves by the thousands in Italy, from where the cult of Mithra radiated to the rest of the European continent. We find, however, a documentary void in this regard that prevents us from categorically asserting this hypothesis. It has also been suggested that the cult will come with the troops that fought in Greece and Asia Minor during the Mithraic Wars, 1st century B.C., but even so, we cannot affirm it categorically.
Other contemporary researchers, such as Roger Beck or R. Merke, advance the possibility of the creation of mysteries in Rome itself. They would be, in this case, religious or high officials with a wide knowledge of Iranian mythology, as well as of Roman Gracchus religion and philosophy. In this direction, Manfred Clauss affirms that " Mithras, identified with Helios, the Greek solar god, was one of the gods of the synthetic and real Greco-Iranian cult, created by Antiochus I, king of the small but prosperous state of Comanege, in the middle of the 1st century BC". One of the evidences used in this hypothesis is the implantation of the found Mithraic temples, but unfortunately they ignore the symbolic and figurative evidences, as well as the deep meaning of the cult. J.R. Russell argues that "it is out of ignorance that some current writers propose as definitive other solutions to the question of the origins-solution that completely excludes the Iranian religious component in the center of the doctrines of worship".
For his part, David Ulansey, in the "creationist" perspective, revisits the mysteries from an exclusively astrological point of view. In this case, Ulansey maintains that the mysteries obey the discovery of the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes, advanced by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicea.
As it usually happens, the truth is most likely to be found at an intermediate point between the proposals that have been enunciated throughout the contemporary era. As a syncretic religion, Mithraism cannot be reduced to a purely circumstantial expression that excludes the profound evidences of our most certain Indo-European past.
Mithras in the Roman Empire
The mysteries of Mithras reached their peak between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. The role of the Roman legions as a source of diffusion of Mithraism towards different areas of the Empire has been confirmed by the presence of Mithraea and references to Mithras in the Limes camps and in settlements of a clearly military nature. It is the Roman legions that accompany the expansion of Mithraism in areas such as Thrace and Crimea, North Africa, Great Britain or Dacia.
The practice of mystery cults was known in Rome since ancient times thanks to the Hellenistic world, where the mysteries of Eleusis enjoyed great prestige. Later, the Romans adopted the Phrygian goddess Cibeles, as well as Baco-Dionisos or Isis. The first testimony about Mithras in the Roman Empire can be found in the Tebaida of Statius, at the end of the 1st century AD, where the Latin poet writes "Mithras, who, under the rocks of the Persian anteroom, twists the horns of the reluctant bull". Even so, the state of evolution of Mithraism at that time is unknown.
For its part, the first archaeological testimony in relation to Mithra dates from around 102 A.D. It is a tauruktonic relief consecrated by Alcimus, slave of T. Cladius Livianus, prefect of Trajan.
The development of Mithraism in military environments indicates the special interrelation that took place between Mithra and the Roman legions. In many urban environments (since the presence of the cult of Mithras was scarce in rural areas, with the exception of some mitre trees that were built in a villa) the presence of Mithraea and of particular inscriptions, make us see that other social groups could also intervene both in the cult and in the propagation towards other areas. In this sense, we must bear in mind the role that merchants from the Asia Minor region could have played, since their own mobility could have promoted the expansion of Mithraism from the 2nd century A.D. onwards.
This hypothesis is based on the abundance of epigraphic testimonies where the Greek-Eastern origin of the dedicatees is evident. This has led us to believe that on many occasions it may have been these merchants of eastern origin who brought with them the practice of worship and introduced it into those areas where they settled to exercise their economic activity. This could explain the presence of Mithraea in areas where the military element was quite weak or practically null. Finally, we cannot forget the abundant presence of freedmen and slaves, and the role they could also play in the propagation of the cult.
To know more
- Monique Zetlaoui. Ainsi vont les enfants de Zarathoustra. Imago, Paris, 2003.
- Zaraθustra, Avesta: Khorda Avesta. Mihr Yasht (Yast 10) (Himno avéstico a Mitra).
- Israel Campos Méndez, Elementos de continuidad entre el culto del dios Mithra en Oriente y Occidente. Universidad de las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, 2001.
- Israel Campos Méndez, La aparición de los misterios mitraicos en el marco religioso del imperio romano. Prensa Canaria, Las Palmas.
- Julien Ries. Le Culte de Mithra en Iran. ANRW, Berlín, 1990.
- Joseph Decreaux. Le Culte de Mithra en Orient. Archéologia, Dijon, 1989.
- Emile Benveniste, Mithra aux vastes p‚turages. Société Asiatique, Paris, 1960.
- Charles Autran, Mithra, Zoroastre et la préhistoire aryenne du christianisme. Payot, Paris, 1935.
- Roger Beck, Mithraism. The cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran. The Encyclopædia Iranica, 2002.