Mithras originated in Persia as a protector against evil, and in Persian creation myths his sacrifice of a mighty bull gave life to the world through its flowing blood. Over time, the cult Mithras grew in importance, spreading throughout the Mediterranean area and even as far as Britain. As the worship of Mithras spread, he evolved into one of the most important gods in the known world of his time.
The cult known as Mithraism had its origins when the great Bactrian prophet Zarathustra, better known as Zoroaster, began a reform of the polytheistic pantheon, elevating the sky-god Ahura-Mazda to a position as the supreme god of all things good, while his counterpart Ahriman came to represent all that is evil. Zarathustra also found a way to retain the other gods of the original pantheon by assembling them under the rule of one or the other of the opposing gods.
Under Zarathustra’s new system, Mithras became the divine representative of Ahura-Mazda on earth as the “Judger of Souls.” His mission was to protect righteous people from the evil forces loyal to Ahriman, and to escort righteous souls to Paradise. Specifically, according to the Avesta, Zoriastrianism’s holy book, Ahura-Madza created Mithras to guarantee the fulfillment of contracts and promises. It was believed that the entire land would suffer if a contract was broken, and Mithras’ duty was to ensure that contracts and promises were kept in order to ensure continuing prosperity.
Zarathustra also believed that a divine savior would be incarnated on earth. According to tradition, on December 25, 272 BC. Mithras was born to Anahita, a virgin mother figure revered as a goddess of fertility before Zarathustra’s reform of the pantheon. During his time on earth, Mithras promoted peace and harmony among his followers and taught the principles of wisdom and honor. He encouraged his followers to practice self-discipline and to resist sensuality. He encouraged his followers to form strong brotherhoods to defend themselves against Ahriman’s evil forces. Then, in 208 BC, at the age of 64, Mithras died. It was said that he was buried in a rock tomb, then arose three days later, ascending to heaven.
The worship of Mithras, which eventually became known as Mithraism, gradually detached itself from Zoroastrianism. It began to spread in one form or another throughout the Mediterranean. The cult was active in Mesopotamia and spread to Armenia, where it became one of the last strongholds of Mithraism and where many temples and mausoleums have been discovered.
Sometime around 67 B.C., Roman soldiers adopted Mithras as their guardian of weapons and special patron of soldiers and armies. His worship continued on for another 300 years, spreading throughout the Roman Empire as far west as England and making its way into every corner of the Roman world.
The rites associated with Mithras are poorly understood. The cult was limited only to men and women were not allowed to participate in, or even to observe, the rites and rituals. It is certain that bull sacrifice was an integral part of the rituals, and his followers developed the handshake as a way of identifying one another.
Mithraism and its belief system provided a distinct threat to the newly developing Christian Church, as noted by early Church fathers Jerome and Origen. The belief systems of both religions were so nearly identical that the Christian Church had difficulty in luring converts away from Mithraism. It is even possible that the Christian Church adopted some of the Mithraic mythology into their own belief system in an attempt to convert believers in Mithras to the worship of their own Savior.
Mithraism inevitably declined as the Church gained its own power base and the support of emperors and kings. But its core beliefs live on in the basic tenets of Christianity. The concepts of the good god and his evil opponent, the dying and rising god-man, and even the idea of an intercessor between god and men are common to both faiths. And it is ironic that the famous Church of San Clemente in Rome was built on top of a Mithraic temple. Mithras lost the battle for men’s hearts and minds, but some of his influence appears to have remained, hidden in the depths of the Christian faith.
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