Mithraism, also known as “The Mysteries of Mithras“, “The Mithraic Mysteries” or “The Mysteries of the Persians“, was a mystery religion that was practised in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th century CE. 

Persian Influence

Many believe that the religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the God Mitra, as not only do Mitra/Mithra share a similar name but the Mysteries themselves had many Persian influences. However this view on the origins of the Mysteries is hotly debated as there is no evidence that what we know as the Mithraic Mysteries ever existed in Persia, and modern scholars now believe that the Mithraic Mysteries was a western invention – possibly based on, influenced by or mimicking what they believed to be Persian beliefs or practices. Another reason for the new opinion on the origins is due to the amount of Roman and Hellenistic Gods, influences and distinctive imagery found within the mysteries. 

Image of Mithra

Rome

The Mithraic Mysteries appears to have had its centre in Rome, and was prevalent throughout the western half of the empire being popular among Roman citizens, but it was after becoming popular in the Roman military that Mithras travelled through their fast empire, being found as far south as Roman Africa and Numidia, as far north as Roman Britain, and to a lesser extent in Roman Syria in the east.

Rivalry

Mithraism is viewed as a rival of early Christianity with many similarities being made, however very little is known about the Mithraic Mysteries and their rituals to make these claims. However both were emerging at the same time, in the same region, in the same culture, so it is likely that they may have contained some similarities or influenced each other. However, from what we do know there are many more differences between the two rivals. But sadly with the rise of Christianity in the 4th century the followers of Mithras faced persecution and the Mysteries was subsequently suppressed and eliminated, their Mysteries, beliefs, ceremonies and practices all lost to time.

Mithraea

The followers of Mithras would meet in underground temples which they referred to as caves, but what we now refer to as a Mithraeum or Mithraea. Many were destroyed or built upon over time, but quite a large number still survive throughout Europe. A popular Mithraeum that can now be visited is in Central London in the Bloomberg Space, another can be found near Hadrian’s Wall in Carrawburgh.

London Mithraeum at the Bloomberg Space.

Complex Rituals

It is understood that the followers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation which the candidate would have passed through. The first of these was called “Corax” which means raven and was the initiation into the Mysteries. This was followed by the trials/grades of “Nymphus” (Bride/bridegroom) and “Miles” (soldier). It is believed that most members would only ever reach the height of the fourth grade which is that of “Leo” (Lion). After this, the senior grades were that of “Perses” (the Persian), “Heliodromas” (the sun-runner) and finally that of “Pater” (the Father) who also presided over the meetings and the ceremonies. From archaeological evidence, we also know that ritual dining was a key element to the mysteries and wold follow every meeting. 

Tauroctony

Much of what we know about the Mithraic mysteries comes from the reliefs and sculptures which have survived. The main relief of the mysteries is that of Mithras slaughtering a bull, an act called the “Tauroctony”. This practice of depicting the God slaying a bull seems to be specific to Roman Mithraism and is not found within the mythology of Mitra/Mithra and is perhaps the most important example of the key differences between the Iranian and Roman traditions, as there is no evidence that the Iranian god Mitra/Mithra ever had anything to do with killing a bull. Other images occasionally found are those of Mithras banqueting with “Sol Invictus” (The Invincible Sun) and depictions of Mithras’ birth from a rock. There have been many attempts to interpret this material, but without accurate records or first-hand accounts, their meaning has sadly been lost.