Friday, August 20, 2010

The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World

Book Review: The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World by Payam Nabarz (Inner Traditions 2005)


Another well done book – the 2nd I have read by this author. Well researched and thought out book on the various manifestations of the Cult of Mithra. Mithra, or Mitra is mentioned in the ancient Vedas and in Persia was known as the Lord of Wide Pastures. In the Vedas it is Mitra and Varuna who maintain order and justice. They were patron to the warrior caste of the Indo-Aryans. Mitra was invoked whenever an oath was taken or a contract was made. The word Mithra, or Mehr in Farsi, means “love”, “friend”, and “sun”. In the Mystery tradition Mithra is said to be Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun that overcomes the planetary Sun and brings benevolence as mediator between heaven and earth. Later, the Roman Mithras likely took on the lore of the warrior-hero Perseus (the Persian), the slayer of Medusa and the rider of Pegasus. There is also some reference to an historical Mithras the savior, born of a virgin in the region where the seed of Zoroaster is said to be preserved in a lake where virgins bathe in order to find out if they are the chosen (to give birth to the savior) The author gives the following chronology:


“Phase I: Indo-European Mithra/Mitra, as early as 2000 BCE
Phase II: Mithra the Savior, around 272 BCE
Phase III: Roman Mithras, late 100 BCE to 400 CE
Phase IV: Rise of Christianity, and Islam as world religions in the Common Era, and the absorption of Mithraism into Christianity, Sufism, Yezidism, and other religions.
Phase V: Rise of Western Secret Societies in the Middle Ages
Phase VI: Revival of Mithraic mysteries, 1900 onward.”


The Roman Cult of Mithras seemed to take on new forms as the preferred cult of the Roman Army. It was immensely popular and the cave temples or Mithraeums are found all over the ancient Roman Empire from Palestine to Central Europe to the British Isles. “The Roman Cult of Mithras was at the forefront of astronomical and philosophical thought, making Mithraism the last pagan state religion in Europe and the most important competitor to early Christianity.”


Mithraic rites also carry on in the traditions of the Freemasory, particularly the Scottish Rite, possibly the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and the OTO. The seventh degree OTO initiation is considered to be a rite of Mithras. Mithraic revivalists – such as the author, also love the poem by Rudyard Kipling called, “A Song to Mithras” which is reproduced in our book. Also there are rock and folk bands with Mithraic symbolism and the famous artist Picasso was known to utilize Mithraic symbolism.


The Roman Mithras was said to be born on the Winter Solstice or on December 25th. His image with a dagger is similar to the image of the Greek Goddess Hecate and indeed Hecate was venerated in Mithraic rites. Mithras was considered to be a stellar god and is often surrounded by the zodiac. In myth he slays the Taurus the Bull wearing the night stars as his cloak. This common image of Mithras slaying the bull is called the Tauroctony and he looks away from the bull as he slays it with a dagger (Perseus must look away from Medusa as he slays her in order to prevent being turned to stone). In the Roman symbolism this may have some influence from the myth of the Greek Goddess Nike slaying the bull. In any case the Mithraic symbolism is deeply astrological and involves the constellations of Perseus (Mithras), Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, Scorpio, and the star Spica from the constellation Virgo. Since this is a mystery cult – the details have been kept secret and so there is much unknown. According to the author the bull-slaying scene represents the precession of the equinoxes where the sun goes from Taurus to Aries at the spring equinox. Now it has moved to Pieces and soon it will be in Aquarius- ie. the Age of Aquarius. The Spring Equinox was in Taurus from approximately 4000 BC to 2000 BC so perhaps these rites/symbolisms are quite old. Mithras as the hunter/slayer is said to move the universe, the stars in their apparent motion about the earth, through love, thus creating through this cosmic sacrifice bringing life to earth in the form of plants, animals, and wine from the birth cave. Mithras is said to have the power to move the cosmic pole (the world tree?) causing the precession of the equinoxes. He does this as he holds the Great Bear constellation Ursa Minor in his hand. He overcomes the planetary Sun and becomes the Invincible Sun. Then he and the Sun befriend one another and shake hands. This is in a sense the divine contract. “ Mithras is described as the lord of wide pastures, of truth and of contracts. “The custom of shaking hands when greeting a friend or after a business deal is said to have originated from the Mithraic mysteries, as a sign of not carrying a weapon , and of trust. The earliest depiction of the act of handshaking in the world is that of Mithra shaking hands (right hands) with the Syrian King Antiochus in the first century B.C.E., a sign of the transfer of divine power from God to his earthly representative and sealing the divine “contract.” This may very well be the origin of the so-called secret handshakes of both the Freemasons and the Sufis. The origin of the military salute may also come from Mithraic rite as a salute to the Sun.


The iconography of Mithras includes the Tauroctony, or the symbolic bull sacrifice and often on the other side of this icon (as a plaque) there is Mithras shaking hands with Sol. Mithras wears the sun’s rays as a crown and the sun is said to be the Eye of Mithras. Mithras conquers the sun in order to end drought so there is also the icon of Mithras as archer firing an arrow into a rock from which water then spouts. There is another icon of a ritual meal with slain bull as table. Mithras rides in Sol’s horse-drawn chariot as the cosmic ruler (Kosmokrator). The icon of the Leontocephaline, or Lion-Headed One is common to Mithraic temples. It is a lion-headed man with a serpent twined about it, standing on a sphere with a key in the right hand with stars and the zodiac painted on the body. Apparently this icon is known in other mystery religions as well.


The Mithraic mysteries consist of a ladder of seven gates, or seven grades beyond which is the 8th gate leading to a region beyond the fixed stars. The grades are associated with the seven planets and are as follows: 1) Corax (Raven) – the initiatory death where the initiate’s body is eaten by the ravens and he is ritually baptized and given a mantra to repeat – Mercury 2) Nymphus (male bride) – Venus – the initiate was to be celibate during this stage and wore a veil and carried a lamp as a bride of Mithras 3) Miles (Soldier) – Mars – here there is a vow of loyalty to Mithras and a rejection of ego. Some have said at this stage there was a tattoo or brand put on the initiate’s forehead. Some have also suggested that the Christian custom of making a cross on the forehead with ash on Ash Wednesday derives from this tradition. 4) Leo (Lion) – Jupiter – 1st of the senior degrees. Element of Fire. Initiate was not allowed to touch water during the rite and was offered honey to wash hands and anoint tongue. The Lions attended the altar flame, the incense, and served the “last supper” ritual meal before Mithras’s ascent to the heavens.
The lion and raven masks and veils for initiates of various grades provide a psychological as well as shamanistic function. 5) Perses (Persian) – Moon – Perses was the son of Perseus/Mithras. One of the emblems for this stage was the harpe sword – used by Perseus to slay the Gorgon Medusa. There are several emblems for each grade. Honey was again used – Honey is associated with the fertility of the moon and in ancient Persia was thought to come from the moon – thus we have honeymoon as a time to make fertile. 6) Heliodromus (Sun Runner) - Sun – this is the initiate as the Sun dining with Father Mithras. The initiate here is dressed in red. 7) Pater (Father) is Mithras, the domain of Saturn, or perhaps Perseus the father of Perses. The initiate here represents Mithras invoked wearing red Persian trousers and the red Persian, or Phrygian cap, worn by Mithras in icons. He is now Father of the Mysteries.


There are also, according to the author, Sufi versions of these initiations and indeed the early codes of chivalrous knights coming from North African and Spanish Sufis likely derive from this tradition. In the Sufi and Roman versions of the rites it is the ego that is slayed as the bull much like Perseus slaying Medusa. Mithras looks away from the bull/ego so as to shun its influence before slaying it completely. If he looks, or embraces the ego he is turned to stone. The bull may also represent the pressing of the Homa juice, (Vedic Soma) the psychoactive substance possibly made from Ephedra, Fly Agaric Mushroom, and/or Hemp, or other plants. In Zoroastrianism, the white bull is the source of all plants and animals.


The Roman Mithras cult is thought to be mostly a male cult although there is evidence for female grades as well. The virgin Persian Goddess Anahita, the mother of Mithras, may be represented as well as Hecate – as a goddess with three faces entwined with snakes. In some historical texts men initiates were called lions and women were called hyenas.


The similarities of Mithraism and early Christianity are many – virgin birth, December 25th birthday, celibate, savior god saved by shedding blood, worshippers baptized, Sundays sacred, view wine as sacrificial blood, ate bread marked with a cross. Mithraism was seen as one of the main rivals/threats to the early Christian Church so there was a strong propaganda campaign to wipe them out. The similarity to Christianity was deemed an imitation trick of the devil. Human remains were found killed in the Mithraic Temples that were destroyed by the Christians.


An interesting aspect is Mithra as Liberator where the refusal to wear the common crown and to vow only to wear the crown of Mithras indicates allegiance to the sun friend. Apparently in these rites there was no distinction between nobles and slaves and even kings – all were considered equals in the cultic domain. So equality, fraternity, and liberty were venerated and practiced in the setting of the cult – as opposed to say normal Roman society. The red Phrygian cap worn by Mithras in iconography is said to have symbolized this liberty. The red liberty cap worn by French Revolutionaries, some of the American Revolutionaries, and some Sufis is thought to derive from this tradition.


The author also notes some similarities between Mithraism and Yezidism, where the peacock angel Malak Taus (sometimes equated with Lucifer and Shaitan) is venerated. He provides good evidence for the Yezidis being remnants of Mithraic and Zoroastrian traditions.


Next he takes the 6th century “The Song of the Macrocosm” by the Welsh bard Taliesin as a possible reference to the Mithraic Cult. Mithraism was strong in Roman Britain and most certainly weaved its way into the Celtic bardic tradition. The author suggests the Celtic deity Ogma, or Ogmios (related to Ogham script) as an Indo-European Celtic Mithra equivalent – as he has a sun ray crown and carries the whip of Sol Invictus. There is some evidence that the Tarot is more derived from the Chaldean/Mithraic lore than with Kabbalistic lore as is commonly taught. Another interesting reference to Celtic Lore is that the Spear of Lugh, a solar deity with similarities to Mithra, is said to have come from Persia.


Next is a chapter devoted to the Persian mythical fairy tale of the dragon Simorgh. This is clearly an oral tale that stretches back to pre-Zoroastrian Persian beliefs. Simorgh is half-human/mammal and half bird – having similarities to the Arabian Roc and the Indian Garuda. The symbolism of ascending the seven heavens (by Prince Korshid/Mithra in the tale) is said to be an old alchemical formula of the Eagle and the Serpent as in the Sufi tale - the Confluence of the Birds – where the hero crosses seven valleys – Search, Love, Mystic Apprehension, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, and Fulfillment in Annihilation. The author goes through the possible symbolisms of this mythic tale in detail. He does some comparisons to modern Wiccan liturgies such as the Charge of the the Goddess.


Next he gives an actual Mithraic Liturgy from 350 CE discovered in Thebes, Egypt as part of the Greek Magical Papyri. There is some astrological symbolism and the recitations involve quite a bit of hissing and puffing whatever that entails. Next is a chapter devoted to the virgin goddess Anahita, noting that she was a Persian goddess of water/fertility. There were temples to Anahita in pre-Zoroastrian Persia and she has been compared to Ishtar (Babylonian), Innana (Sumerian), and Sarasvati (Indian). Incidentally, Sarasvati was known in Persia as Haraxati (as h replaced s in very ancient Persian dialects) – and Sarasvati was well-known as a Vedic river goddess – associated with the Sarasvati River of the Indus Valley culture (~ 3000-1900 BC) which moved away as the river dried up (remnants of the disappeared river – once thought to be mythic – were recently discovered buried beneath sediment by earth penetrating radar). The author suggests that the influence of this sea goddess Anahita accounts for the better treatment of women in Iranian Islamic society than in other Islamic societies. He notes the resemblance of the word Anahita to the Sanskrit word Anahata – the heart chakra – equated with love and kindness. He notes the Farsi words for Mithra and Anahita – as Mehr and Aban – sometimes given in one word as Mehraban. Mithra also means love or friend or kindness. This is the same as the Sanskrit word Maitri (very similar to Mitra) – meaning loving-kindness or loving friendliness. Some have suggested Mithra as a model for the future Buddha Maitreya – the Buddha of Loving-Kindness, but more likely it is just the word Maitri and its meaning rather than the deity that is the model.


Next he gives meditations on the grades of the Mithraic Cult with liturgies and Persian/Zoroastrian texts as well as suggestions on what the initiation ordeals entailed. Finally there are appendices with the Zoroastrian Hymns to Mithra and Anahita. Although he does not include them I recall a few hymns to Mitra in the Rig Veda as well.


Fascinating book – from a historical standpoint, from a symbolic/astrological standpoint, and from a standpoint of understanding and reconstructing ancient mysteries. The author certainly considers himself to be a Mithriac Reconstructionist and does a great job of purveying lore – particularly valuable is his knowledge of Farsi and Persian Lore and his initiations into Sufism and even neo-Druidism.

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