Cult of Mithras: Myth & History

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  • 0:23 Mithraism in Persia
  • 1:28 Mithraism in Rome
  • 2:08 Mithraic Sources and Beliefs
  • 3:54 Cult Practices
  • 4:56 Mithraism's Impact on…
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

The Cult of Mithras was a mysterious religion popular in Rome in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. This lesson explores the secretive beliefs, practices, and history of the cult and its initiates.

The Cult of Mithras

Mithras was the name of an ancient Persian god who was adopted into Roman beliefs. Mithraism was a secretive cult religion. Beliefs were known only to its initiates, who were not allowed to record their knowledge. This secretive nature is what designates Mithraism as a mystery religion.

Mithraism in Persia

To understand the spread of Mithraism, we must first learn a little more about Persia and Zoroastrianism. Mithras may have been one of the most important and revered gods in Persian religion. One of the earliest references to Mitra (also known as Mithras) was in a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni. The root of Mithras' name is 'mihr,' which means 'contract.' In very ancient times, Mithras would have looked over the affairs of his followers. You might think of him as a god of contracts, friendship, and justice.

In the sixth century BCE, a Persian prophet named Zoroaster (or Zarathustra in Persian) created a new religious movement. Zoroastrianism maintained monotheism (the belief in only one god, or one god as the ultimate power over others) and dualism (the concept of two competing forces such as light and dark or good and evil). Zoroaster's one god was named Ahura Mazda. He designated Mithras as a god that ruled over the earth but not over Ahura Mazda.

Mithraism in Rome

Because of its secretive nature, we don't know much about the cult until it came to Rome. Mithraism was most popular in Rome between the second and fourth centuries CE. The spread of Mithraism into Rome is mostly undocumented. However, we do have some sources from outside the cult, including those from ancient texts of writers like Plutarch, Porphyry, Tertullian, and Origen. The cult, which was only open to men, became especially popular within the Roman military. Archeologists have found that it was most popular in the second century CE, dying out during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Mithraic Sources

Much of our evidence of Mithraism can be found across the Roman Empire (including Rome, Turkey, and across Britain). Some of what is known of the cult's beliefs and practices comes from the imagery of Mithras left behind in paintings and carvings. The most well-known images of Mithras is of the god slaying a bull. This can be found in Mithraic temples. Mithras is depicted in Persian clothing, killing a bull with a dagger. This scene takes place in front of the entrance to a cave.

Images of Mithras are often shown with other deities, the meaning of which is unknown.
Images shown with Mithras

Mithras is often shown with two other deities, a dog, a snake, a scorpion, or a raven. Historians have yet to agree on the meaning behind the images, although it is likely to imply that cult members believed in the necessity of a sacrifice of some sort. Other images include one of Mithras being born from a rock. Images also depict him hunting a bull and celebrating at a banquet with Sol Invictus.

Mithraic Beliefs

With these images and historical accounts at hand, we can now make some inferences about what cult members might have believed. In Persia, Mithras was a god who oversaw justice and friendship. As Zoroastrianism spread, followers still believed in his existence, but his role changed to be someone with less authority than Ahura Mazda.

In Rome, Mithras was considered a sun god but also a bull-slayer, a cattle-thief, and a 'savior' to his initiates. Members of the cult believed it was important to be loyal and were expected to build friendships with other members. Although Zoroastrians believed they should spread their knowledge, helping Mithraism spread, cult members in Rome believed very strongly that their beliefs and rituals should not be shared. There is no known first-hand account from an initiate to help us understand their belief system.

Cult Practices

Another way to guess what Mithraics believed is to consider some of their practices. Members of the cult were organized into small groups. They met regularly for secret rituals in small temples, referred to as caves. These temples may have been actual caves or sometimes set against rock faces. Temples that were not caves may have been created to resemble caves with dim lighting, for example.

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