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From Mithraism to Freemasonry. A history of ideas

Twelve centuries separate the decline of Roman Mithraism from the dawn of Freemasonry. Twelve centuries during which the mysteries of Mithras have remained more secret than ever.
Assembly of Free Masons for the initiation of a Master

Assembly of Free Masons for the initiation of a Master
Creative Commons

30 Jul 2021
The first documented mentions of the Mithraic cult in Western Europe, with allusions to Eastern-named gods, profuse and unmistakable iconography, and dark, subterranean temples, appear from the end of the 1st century onwards. The Thebaid of Statius is the first Latin text to name Mithras 'who twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave'. We have to wait until 102 to find the first representation of Mithras sacrificing the Sacred Bull, a sculpture consecrated by Alcimus, slave of a prefect of Trajan.

As is well known, the persecution and consequent interdiction of pagan cults from the 4th century onwards put an end to the Mithraic cultic organisation as it had been known up to that time. From then on, throughout the Empire, temples would be closed, sculptures beheaded, and frescoes covered with plaster at best.

Mithras killing the bull, earliest representation known.

However, a good number of the initiates survived the persecution. And with them, in a more or less orthodox way, will survive the mysteries that have been revealed to them, the memory of the rituals they practised, and the knowledge they were able to accumulate. Knowledge that will continue to be transmitted sottovoce to other curious minds eager to know who was that solar god of brotherhood that their ancestors worshipped before Christianity imposed itself as the only truth in a Europe that was entering the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Knowledge is an elastic and unbreakable material

Knowledge, ideas, wisdom and culture in general are a strange matter. Like energy — perhaps that is what it is all about — ideas do not arise out of nothing and are never completely destroyed, they are simply transformed. Ideas, like gods, may change their form, even their name. They may lose some attributes, gain others, rise or fall in the hierarchy of the different schools and pantheons they inhabit, but they always end up re-emerging in one way or another when they are least expected. Perhaps this is so because ideas are as eternal as existence itself, or because they are made of the same essence as archetypes, which are the raw material from which both mythology and the most banal dreams are nourished.

Mithras, the invincible god, is a good example of the indestructibility of the values that the divinities represent. His origin is so remote that it is lost at the dawn of history. The earliest known document that mentions him beyond the borders of the Roman Empire is a 14th century BC clay tablet from Boghaz-Kay in modern-day Turkey, the ancient capital of the Hittite empire. In this document, Mithras, along with other Indo-Aryan gods, serves as the guarantor of an agreement between Hittites and Mitanni.[1]

Speculative Freemasonry arises in a particular historical and geographical context that deeply permeates each and every one of its formal aspects, while disguising its origins
In fact, the term Mithras comes from the proto-Indo-Aryan hypostasis *mitra, meaning precisely contract. In the Indian subcontinent, Mithra is considered the protector of the given word, of meetings, over which he presides, and by extension of honesty and fraternity. The same meaning for the Mithra of Iran, where his presence endures despite the reform of Zarathustra, who will try to impose a single god on the complex Mazdean pantheon.[2]

The Age of Taurus and the Year of Light

The central Mithraic myth, i.e. the sacrifice of the Celestial Bull — attended by a raven, a scorpion, a dog and a snake — which allows the regeneration of nature, has been known since ancient times as a founding act of civilisation. Mentions of a sacred bovine sent by the gods whose sacrifice is necessary to life on earth appear in texts as old as the Epic of Gilgameš, the Avesta or even the Odyssey.

The different motifs that make up the Mithraic Tauroctony coincide, in fact, with the intersection at the celestial equator of the constellation Taurus together with those of Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus and Scorpius. This unique alignment, the so-called Age of Taurus,[3] last occurred between 4000 and 2000 B.C. This age is marked by the peak of the Sumerian civilisation, the creation of the first city states in Mesopotamia and the birth of writing. The Sumerians were among the first people to study the stars and name the constellations that, despite translations, we still recognise today.

It is therefore a pivotal period for mankind, a beginning of civilisation as we understand it today, starting in about 4000 BC, the year chosen by the Freemasons as their Anno Lucis, or year of creation.

Mithras, the god of all men

The arrival of Mithras in the Roman Empire is still a subject of debate among specialists. This archaic but civilising god, protector of friendship and agreements, appears in Western Europe in an unprecedented form. We will not find Mithras depicted so explicitly, executing the sacred Bull or sharing a meal with Sol on the skin of the sacrificed Bull, beyond the borders of the Empire.

However, the Eastern origin of the Mithraic cult in the West is attested in the initiatory hierarchy itself, which includes a degree called Persian, and in the very costume of the divinity, as well as in numerous Latin epigraphs and mentions, such as The Thebaid referred above. Despite the numerous evidences that connect Roman Mithras with homonymous Eastern gods, some contemporary theorists have proposed creationist solutions that try to distance the Western cult from that of other regions of the planet.

Be that as it may, the function of Mithras as the protector god of the given word, of contracts and of friendship will endure in the Empire and in what will remain of it, as it will in the Indo-Aryan territories as a whole. And it was precisely the value of fraternity among men, regardless of their origin, condition or status — it suffices to recall that among the initiates of the Persian cult there were emperors and slaves alike — that gave rise, in the 16th century, to the first Scottish Hermeticist lodges, the basis of what we know today as speculative Freemasonry.[4]

The temple as a reflection of the cosmos

The convergences between the mysteries of Mithras and Freemasonry do not end here. Any Master Mason interested in Mithraism will not fail to find links ranging from the most abstract to the most concrete. Many aspects of symbolic, philosophical or conceptual nature, but also material and pragmatic, such as the space in which the initiates of both schools operate.

One only has to visit a mithraeum and a Masonic temple to realise that they are one and the same thing. In both cases, it is an earthly representation of the cosmos through which souls pass in their process of reincarnation — or evolution — as Porphyry explains in his Cave of the Nymphs. A space presided over by the Sun and the Moon, and the cultic image, either the symbolic representation of the Great Architect of the Universe or that of Mithras sacrificing the Bull.

Both temples have a vaulted ceiling lined with stars. The space is windowless, closed to the outside or with strategic openings that only illuminate the sacred image at certain times of the year. The Mithraic temple, like the Masonic temple, is a timeless place where mysteries are performed, members of the community are initiated, earthly matters are deliberated, and, ultimately, brotherhood among the brethren is forged.

Both spaces are relatively small as they are adapted to communities of no more than thirty individuals. Both spaces are delimited by the four directions of a rectangular plan. On either side of a central corridor, to the north and south, the masons sit or the mithraists recline, lined up facing each other according to their degrees and qualities. In the east sits the Pater with his assistants in the one case, and the Worshipful Master and the wardens in the other.

Russell mentions in his article On Mithraism and Freemasonry that several mithraea contain shallow depressions in the floor where a sarcophagus containing the body of the symbolically deceased brother is placed. Indeed, both Masonic and Mithraic initiation, like most initiations in any tradition, are preceded by the symbolic death of the neophyte who will be reborn leaving behind his profane life. In other words, in both cases, an initiate is natus et renatus within the mystical community.

In vino veritas

One of the high moments of the Mithraic ritual is the ritual banquet. This sacrament commemorates a mythological episode that we can see depicted on many of the reliefs of the Persian cult, where Mithras and Sol celebrate their meeting with a meal on the skin of the sacrificed bull, assisted by Cautes and Cautopates. This event is part of the ritual practised by the followers of the solar god in the Mithraic temples.[5] The roles of Mithras and Sol are assumed by the Pater and Heliodromus. The whole community participates in this banquet, those of lower degree, such as the Masonic apprentices, will be responsible for assisting their brethren.

Mithraic arcosolium of the catacomb of SS. Peter and Marcellinus
Gabriela Ingle

In the same way, the masons conclude their work with a banquet, in this case outside the temple, in an adjoining or outdoor room. While it is true that in the Mithraic ritual, the food eaten has a symbolic value — at least the wine and bread, which represent the flesh and blood of the Sacred Bull — all types of food are eaten at Mithraic feasts, especially poultry. Apart from the ritual element, therefore, both Mithraic and Masonic feasts are a time of relaxation where food and wine promote camaraderie.

Degrees, qualities, gestures and experiences

It is widely known that Speculative Masons are divided into three main degrees according to their seniority, experience and involvement within the community. The practice is somewhat more complex, for beyond the degrees of Apprentice, Fellow and Master, there are other symbolic or functional degrees. The same is true of the mysteries of Mithras, although, instead of three, the Mithraic initiatory ladder involves up to seven steps, to which are added higher grades with administrative roles at a supra-communal level.

In any case, to be initiated in either tradition, moral integrity is a must. It should be borne in mind that Roman Mithraism is part of the philosophical currents of the time, namely Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, to which we must add the imprint of Eastern traditions, particularly Persian, which brought the first followers to the Empire.[6] Similarly, Masonic lodges require their candidates to be men 'of good morals' and 'without blemish of immorality', however these values may be measured.

Another point in common between the two brotherhoods is the importance given to the gesture of shaking hands. So much so that an initiate into the mysteries of Mithras is known by the Greek term syndexios, meaning one who has exchanged the handshake.[7] It is, after all, the gesture that represents agreement and fraternity, as it was in Nemrut Dağı, Turkey, in the 1st century BC, where Antiochus shakes hands with Mithras. For their part, Freemasons use a specific variant of the handshake that allows them to recognise each other without the need to verbally express their affiliation.

Antiochus I Theos and Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes from Nemrut Dağı.
Herman Brijder

It is not de rigueur to communicate the mysteries that have been revealed during an initiation, especially because the initiate undertakes not to do so — and let us remember that it is Mithras himself who is the guarantor of the promises. Neither is it worth going into detail because of the very nature of the act: the meaning of initiation lies not in a set of actions, gestures and words, but in the experience itself, in the transformative effect that the ceremony has — or does not have — on the candidate. Suffice it to mention, as a hint, Porphyry's testimony, or that of Apuleius, to get an idea of what both Mithraic and Masonic initiation can entail.

Of course, speculative Freemasonry also has divergences from the Persian solar cult. Many of them have to do with the twelve centuries that separate them. Speculative Freemasonry arises in a particular historical and geographical context that deeply permeates each and every one of its formal aspects, while disguising its origins. Even so, Freemasonry remains to this day the greatest representative of a tradition, based on equality and fraternity, that binds its members together in a chain that stretches from the past and reaches into the future.



    Ricardo Restaldi

    Excelente artículo Hermano. La Masonería sigue siendo la gran heredera de los antiguos misterios. Mitraístas y masones son hermanos a través del tiempo. Pensar que nuestros antepasados fueron muchos de ellos adoradores de Mitra. Saludo fraternal a todos!


    Roberto R. Violat

    Excelente su artículo que confirma la teoria del profesor Russell, del cual me basé en parte en la realización de mi artículo:
    Es evidente que la masonería introdujo elementos en sus rituales procedentes del mitraismo a lo largo del siglo XVIII y XIX conforme fueron avanzando las investigaciones sobre los hallazgos arqueológicos.


      Gaby Simeoni

      Gracias por compartir tu artículo, Roberto. Es difícil determinar en qué momento la masonería especulativa incluyó tantos aspectos de los misterios de Mitra, si fue desde el origen a través —como mencionas en tu escrito— de otras corrientes medievales que conservaron un saber más antiguo o durante su evolución en siglos posteriores, pero lo cierto es que cuesta creer que tantos paralelismos se deban al azar.


    Pattie Lawler

    I appreciate this article as it spawned and actual (gasp!) conversation on the facebook group. Mithraists are such a secretive bunch. ;-) There were a few bits I didn't agree with, but in the main, I too feel that when Mithras could no longer command the members it once had, it simply changed its outward appearance and kept going as the Masons. A fresh coat of paint, a change of clothes, and TA DA! Easy peasy.


      Gaby Simeoni

      Pattie, you and I need to talk about those bits one of these days. I'd be glad to know more about them.


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