left biblioblography: A Blast From The Past – Of Mithras, Mythology, And Muddled Meanings

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Blast From The Past – Of Mithras, Mythology, And Muddled Meanings

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers! 


Be gracious to me, 0 Providence and Psyche, as I write these mysteries handed down for gain but for instruction; and for an only child I request immortality, O initiates of this our power (furthermore, it is necessary for you, O daughter, to take the juices of herbs and spices, which will to you at the end of my holy treatise), which the great god Helios Mithras ordered to be revealed to me by his archangel, so that I alone may ascend into heaven as an inquirer and behold the universe. – The Mithras Liturgy

Anyone who has walked down the blogging path of atheism has, at least in the beginning (while rooting about in historic data), heard the name of Mithras. Or has had more than one spirited debate with the religious about the matter of mythological parallelism.  So, in the alleged spirit of the season, I thought it fitting to pull down this old topic from the shelf, blow and bat the dust off it, and give it a going over.

The archeology is actually quite slim, as evidenced here. And from here:

The first surviving ancient author to mention Mithras is Statius ca. 80 AD, who makes an enigmatic reference, possibly to the tauroctony.

And theories about how it originated are, sadly, all over the place:


The Greek biographer Plutarch (46 - 127) was convinced that the pirates of Cilicia, the coastal province in the southeast of Anatolia, were the origin of the Mithraic rituals that were being practiced in the Rome in his day: "They likewise offered strange sacrifices; those of Olympus I mean; and they celebrated certain secret mysteries, among which those of Mithras continue to this day, being originally instituted by them." (Life of Pompey 24). The 4th century commentary on Vergil by Servius says that Pompey settled some of these pirates in Calabria. But whether any of this relates to the origins of the mysteries is unclear.


According to 3-4th century AD philosopher Porphyry, Mithraists considered that their cult was founded by Zoroaster. But Porphyry is writing close to the demise of the cult, and modern scholar Robert Turcan has challenged the idea that Porphyry's statements about Mithraism are accurate. His case is that far from representing what Mithraists believed, they are merely representations by the neo-platonists of what it suited them in the late 4th century to read into the mysteries. Merkelbach and Beck believe that Porphyry's work "is in fact thoroughly coloured with the doctrines of the Mysteries."

Cumont's hypothesis

Scholarship on Mithras begins with Franz Cumont, who published a two volume collection of source texts and images of monuments in French in 1894–1900. Cumont's hypothesis, as the author summarizes it in the first 32 pages of his book, was that the Roman religion was "the Roman form of Mazdaism", the Persian state religion, disseminated from the East.

Cumont's theories were examined and largely rejected at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies held in 1971. John Hinnells was unwilling to reject entirely the idea of Iranian origin, but wrote: "we must now conclude that his reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography."  He discussed Cumont's reconstruction of the bull-slaying scene and stated "that the portrayal of Mithras given by Cumont is not merely unsupported by Iranian texts but is actually in serious conflict with known Iranian theology." Another paper by R. L. Gordon showed that Cumont severely distorted the available evidence by forcing the material to conform to his predetermined model of Zoroastrian origins. Gordon suggested that the theory of Persian origins was completely invalid and that the Mithraic mysteries in the West was an entirely new creation.

Boyce states that "no satisfactory evidence has yet been adduced to show that, before Zoroaster, the concept of a supreme god existed among the Iranians, or that among them Mithra - or any other divinity - ever enjoyed a separate cult of his or her own outside either their ancient or their Zoroastrian pantheons."

Beck tells us that since the 1970s scholars have generally rejected Cumont, but adds that recent theories about how Zoroastrianism was during the period BC now makes some new form of Cumont's east-west transfer possible. "Apart from the name of the god himself, in other words, Mithraism seems to have developed largely in and is, therefore, best understood from the context of Roman culture."

I use the term ‘sadly’, because it does tend to be one of those overworked but inadequate talking points when debating with the average theist. There is no proof that any sort of pilfering went on from either side. It’s an engaging thought, but a dead end:

The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and Mithraism is based on a passing remark in the 2nd century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion rite. Based upon this, Ernest Renan in 1882 set forth a vivid depiction of two rival religions: "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic," Edwin M. Yamauchi comments on Renan's work which, "published nearly 150 years ago, has no value as a source. He [Renan] knew very little about Mithraism..."

The philosopher Celsus in the second century provides some evidence that Ophite Gnostic ideas were influencing the mysteries of Mithras.

Mithras and the Virgin Birth

Joseph Campbell, who was not a Mithras scholar, described the birth of Mithras as a virgin birth, like that of Jesus. He gives no ancient source for his claim.

Mithras was not thought of as virgin born in any ancient source. Rather, he arose spontaneously from a rock in a cave. In Mithraic Studies it is stated that Mithras was born as an adult from solid rock, "wearing his Phrygian cap, issues forth from the rocky mass. As yet only his bare torso is visible. In each hand he raises aloft a lighted torch and, as an unusual detail, red flames shoot out all around him from the petra genetrix."

David Ulansey speculates that this was a belief derived from the Perseus' myths which held he was born from an underground cavern.

And December 25th was not the alleged birthday of this man-myth:

Mithras and 25 December

It is often stated that it was believed that Mithras was born on December 25. Beck calls this assertion "that hoariest of 'facts'". He continues: "In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of "Invictus" on that date in Calendar of Philocalus. 'Invictus' is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian's sun god. It does not follow that a different, earlier, and unofficial sun god, Sol Invictus Mithras, was necessarily or even probably, born on that day too."

Clauss states that there were no public ceremonies of the mysteries of Mithras: "the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own. The festival of natalis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)], held on 25 December, was a general festival of the Sun, and by no means specific to the Mysteries of Mithras."

Steven Hijmans has discussed in detail the question of whether the general "natalis Invicti" festival was related to Christmas but does not give Mithras as a possible source.

And the shedding of blood is a reference to….?

Mithras and Salvation

A painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum in Rome contains the words: et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us ... in the shed blood). The meaning of this is unclear, although presumably refers to the bull killed by Mithras, as no other source refers to a Mithraic salvation. According to Robert Turcan,Mithraic salvation had little to do with the other-worldly destiny of individual souls, but was on the Zoroastrian pattern of man's participation in the cosmic struggle of the good creation against the forces of evil.

So, the short version is – there is no evidence that Christianity borrowed from Mithraism, nor is there any vice versa. I am convinced that Theodosius I’s implementation and enforcement of the Nicene religion led to the destruction of a great many documents and monuments that would have given us substantial proofs one way or another, but alas I cannot prove it. As a talking point, it’s a fair illustration of not only how parallels occur (or are borrowed, or pinched, or whatnot), but also how incredibly sketchy historical veracity becomes when the Christians took over.  Outside of that, it’s not the sort of factoid that will slap the reader into some sort of admission. Then again, as we all know, facts are for the pragmatist and the realist, not the religionist.

Till the next post, then.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed look into this. I know I'm guilty of peddling the Mithras mythology like a truth, or at least a logical possibility. It certainly is worth remembering that there is a lot we'll never know for sure on account of all that's been lost.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Sure - it's why I posted it, it's 1 of those memes that snowballed.
Thx for reading.

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Mohammad Moghaddam's 'Jostar Darbareye Mehr va Nahid' (About Mithra and the Virgin) has an explanation of the virgin birth story, which perhaps is what Joseph Campbell was referring to:


Krystalline Apostate said...

Thanks for the recommendation, ...said..., but I'm firmly convinced that the 'virgin birth' was a huge sham, as are all the stories in all the religious texts.