Meithras, Mithras: The Origins and Influence of Mithraism in Ancient Rome

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Mithraism: The Enigmatic Cult that Captivated Imperial Roman Troops.

Mithraism was an ancient Hellenistic religion based on the worship of a god called Meithras who was apparently derived from the Persian god Mithras and other deities of Zoroastrianism.

Related article: The Mithraeum of San Clemente in Rome

Unlike Zoroastrianism it was a mystery religion. Roman mystery religion Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries or the Cult of Mithras, was based on the god Mithras. The Roman Mithras is associated with a unique and distinctive iconography, with the degree of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice being disputed. This is despite the fact that it was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god (yazata) Mithra. From around the first through the fourth century CE, the mysteries were a favorite among the Imperial Roman troops.

Images of the god slaying a bull used as symbols of Mithras devotion under the Roman Empire. Roman temples have other representations of Mithras, such as ones showing him dining with Sol and being born out of a rock. However, the tauroctonic picture is always shown in the center of the niche (tauroctony was the art of slaying a holy bull). Roman Mithraism appears to be the only religion where it is customary to represent the god killing a bull.

Mithras born from the rock (petra genetrix), statue dedicated by Aurelius Bassinus
Mithras born from the rock (petra genetrix), statue dedicated by Aurelius Bassinus (source)

Mithraic Mysteries in Ancient Rome. Mithraism was highly popular among Roman soldiers, and its adherents were predominantly male. Initiates were organized into seven grades, each corresponding to a planet, and hierarchical in nature. The ascending grades were Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Bridegroom), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-runner), and Pater (Father). Progression through these grades involved a series of initiation rites, the details of which are not fully known due to the secret nature of the cult.

The so-called dinner scene is the second-most significant scene in Mithraic art, behind the tauroctony. Mithras and Sol Invictus are shown dining on the skin of the butchered bull in the feast scene. The image of Mithras shows him emerging from a rock. He is seen rising from a rock when still a young man, holding a light in one hand and a knife in the other. He is standing with his legs interlocked, naked, and donning a Phrygian hat.

Sketch of a Leontocephaline found at a mithraeum in Ostia Antica, Italy (190 CE)
Leontocephaline found at a mithraeum in Ostia Antica, Italy (190 CE)

The nude, lion-headed figure frequently seen in Mithraic temples is one of the Mysteries’ most recognizable and poorly understood aspects. Modern researchers have given it names like leontocephaline (lion-headed) or leontocephalus (lion-head). With the snake’s head frequently lying on the lion’s head, his body is that of a nude man who is being held captive by a serpent (or two serpents, like a caduceus). Frequently, the lion’s mouth is open. He frequently appears with four wings, two keys (or occasionally just one key), and a scepter in his hand. On occasion, the figure is shown standing atop a globe with a diagonal cross.

Archaeological Evidence and Spread. The archaeological remains of Mithraic temples, known as mithraea, are often found along the borders of the Roman Empire, including locations such as Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and Dura-Europos in Syria. These temples are typically subterranean and are designed to resemble caves, alluding to the mythical birthplace of Mithras. Artifacts such as altars, inscriptions, and frescoes have been discovered in these sites, offering glimpses into the ritual practices and beliefs of the cult. The spread of Mithraism across the Roman Empire coincided with periods of military expansion, emphasizing its close ties with Roman legions.

Featured image: Tauroctony of the Mithraic mysteries bas-relief. At the Sarrebourg Mithraeum, discovered in 1895 (Pons Saravi, Gallia Belgica). is on view at the Metz museum La Cour d’Or.

Topics: Mithraic mysteries in Ancient Rome, Influence of Persian beliefs on Roman Mithraism, Symbols and rites in the worship of Mithras, Mithras and Sol Invictus divine feast, Understanding the leontocephaline in Mithraic temples, Roman troops and the cult of Mithras, Tauroctony in Mithraic worship, Mithras born from the rock, Mithraism and Imperial Rome, Leontocephaline and its symbolism in Mithraism



Nemesis, Rhamnousia

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