Mithras (Mithra) In Persian mythology, god of life, heat, fertility, a mediator between the gods and men, and chief aide to the good god, Ahura Mazda, in his war against the evil spirit, Ahriman. In pre-Zoroastrian times Mithras and Ahura were probably twin sky gods, called payuthworeshtara, the “two creator-preservers” of the cosmos. Between 1400 b.c.e. and 400 c.e. Persians, Indians, Romans, and Greeks all worshipped the god Mithras, who originally may have been the sun god, Mitra, mentioned in the Indian Rig-Veda. During Roman times the worship of Mithras was converted into a mystery religion. The god was worshipped by the soldiers and imperial officials of Rome. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A Song to Mithras” captures the mood of the Roman belief in the god’s powers:

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall! Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away, Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day! Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great Bull dies, Look on Thy Children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice! Many roads Thou hast fashioned—all of them lead to Light! Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright!

Part of Kipling’s poem refers to the repeated reliefs or statues that portray Mithras slaying a bull. The scene portrays a young man wearing a Phrygian cap slaying a massive bull while a
dog licks the blood, a serpent crawls nearby, and a scorpion seems to be removing the bull’s testicles. On either side of the scene is a young man, one with a torch uplifted, the other with the torch facing downward.

What exactly this scene symbolizes has puzzled scholars and thinkers. Carl Jung, picking up the similarity between the mysteries of Mithras and of Christianity, sees the slaying of the bull as “essentially a self-sacrifice, since the bull is a world bull which was originally identical with Mithras himself. . . . The representations of the sacrificial act, the tauroctony [bull slaying], recall the crucifixion between two thieves, one of whom is raised up to paradise while the other goes down to hell.”

Jung, however, was not the first to recognize the similarities. Tertullian, the early Church writer, seeing that the pagan cult contained baptism and the use of bread, water, and wine consecrated by priests, called fathers, wrote that the similarities of the Mithraic cult to Christianity were inspired by the devil, who wished to mock the Christian sacraments in order to lead the faithful to hell. The French author Ernest Renan, in the skeptical 19thcentury tradition, wrote: “If Christianity had been arrested in its growth . . . the world would have been Mithraist.”

The religion of Mithras was suppressed by Emperor Constantine when he established Christianity as the state religion in the Roman Empire. Present-day Zoroastrians, however, still worship Mithras as a god.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

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