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Mithraism

MithraIran never ceased to worship Mithra, from their first assumption of worldly power till the day of their conversion to Islam. Mithraism was the pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander's conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era, reached its zenith during the third century, and vanished under the repressive regulations of Tneodosius at the end of the fourth century.

The origins of the cult are specifically in the earliest Ayran documents — in the Vedas, in which the deity Mithra is one of the most prominent figures. In that epoch when the ancestors of the Persians were still united with those of the Hindus, they were already worshippers of Mithra. The hymns of the Vedas celebrated his name, as did those of the Avesta, and despite the differences obtaining between the two theological systems of which these books were the expression, the Vedic Mitra and the Iranian Mithra have preserved so many traits of resemblance that it is impossible to entertain any doubt concerning their common origin. Both religions saw in him a god of light, invoked together with Heaven, bearing in the one case the name of Varuna and in the other that of Ahura; in ethics he was recognized as the protector of truth, the antagonist of falsehood and error.

In the Indo-Iranian religion the Asura of Heaven was often invoked in company with Mithra, the god of the heavenly light; and he let him share with himself the universal sovereignty. In the Veda they are invoked as a pair (Mitrit-Varuna) which enjoys the same powers and rights as Varuna alone, as there is nothing more in Mitri-Varuna than in Varuna alone, Mithra being the light ot Heaven, that is, the light of Varuna. But Ahura-Mazda [Ormazd] could no longer bear an equal, and Mithra [in the Zend-Avesta] became one of his creatures: 'This Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, I have created as worthy of sacrifice, as worthy of glorification, as I, Ahura-Mazda, am myself.' But old formulae, no longer understood, in which Mithra and Ahura, or rather Mithra-Ahura, are evoked in an indivisible unity, dimly remind one that the Creator was formerly a brother to his creature. Mitra-Varuna, and the five other Adityas celebrated by the Vedas, likewise Mithra-Ahura and the Amshaspands, who, according to the Avestan conception surround the Creator, are the sun, the moon, and the planets, the worship of which was adopted by the Indo-Iranians.

Darius, the son of Hystaspes, placed the emblems of AhuraMazda and of Mithra in equally conspicuous positions on the sculptured tablet above his tomb [BC 485]; and his example was followed by all the later monarchs of his race whose sepulchres are still in existence. Artaxerxes Mnemon [d. BC 358] placed an image of Mithra in the temple attached to the royal palace of Suza. He also in his inscriptions unites Mithra with Ahura-Mazda, and prays for their conjoint protection. Artaxerxes Ochus [d. BC 337] does the same a little later; and the practice is also observed in portions of the Zendavesta composed about this period." Artaxerxes Mnemon, too, swore by "the light of Mithras," as William the Conqueror swore by "the splendour of God."

The Avesta gives Mithra's position only after the Zoroastrian reformation; the inscriptions of the Acharnenidae (seventh to fourth century BC) assign him a much higher place, naming him immediately after Ahura Mazda and associating him with the goddess Anaitis (Anahata), whose name sometimes precedes his own. Mithra is the god of light, Anaitis the goddess of water. Independently of the Zoroastrian reform, Mithra retained his place as foremost deity in the north-west of the Iranian highlands. After the conquest of Babylon this Persian cult came into contact with Chaldean astrology and with the national worship of Marduk. For a time the two priesthoods of Mithra and Marduk (magi and chaldean respectively) coexisted in the capital and Mithraism borrowed much from this intercourse.

The name Mithradates, "given by Mithra," so often borne by Parthian monarchs, is another testimony to the influence of Mithra. The first Mithridates may fairly be considered the greatest monarch of his day. Receiving at his accession to the Parthian throne (BC 174) a kingdom but of narrow dimensions, confined apparently between the city of Charax on the one side and the river Arius, or Heri-rud, on the other, he transformed it, within the space of thirty-seven years — which was the time that his reign lasted — into a great and flourishing empire. It is not too much to say that, but for him, Parthia might have remained to the end a mere petty state on the outskirts of the Syrian kingdom, and, instead of becoming a rival to Rome, might have sunk after a short time into insignificance and obscurity.

The Parthians themselves may not have adopted, or approved of the Mithraic religion, although we have but little evidence of their having neglected it; but the great mass of their subjects must have retained it, more especially in Mesopotamia. Parthian rule must always have grated upon the feelings of their Persian subjects more than upon those of the generality, since there was in the Parthians an ingrained coarseness and savagery which could not but be especially distasteful to a people of such comparative refinement as the Persians.

The duration of the Parthian monarchy was a little short of five centuries. It commenced about BC 250, and it terminated in AD 227. It is certain that among the principal changes consequent upon the success of the Sassanid Persians was a religious revolution in Western Asia — the substitution for Parthian tolerance of all faiths and worships of a rigidly enforced uniformity in religion, the establishment of the Magi in power, and the bloody persecution of all such as declined obedience to the precepts of Zoroaster.

Plutarch states (Life of Pompey, c. 24) that Mithraism was first introduced to Rome through the Cilician pirates, whom Pompey put down. The cult of Mithra was during some centuries of the Roman Empire the most widespread of the religious systems which that Empire embraced; that is to say, that Mithraism was the most nearly universal religion of the western world in those early centuries which we commonly call Christian— the two or three centuries before the fall of Imperial Rome. The monumental remains of the Roman period, in almost all parts of the empire, show its extraordinary popularity.

The ritual of the Avesta is perfectly clear: "We sacrifice unto Mithra and Ahura, the two great, imperishable, holy Gods; and unto the stars, and the moon, and the sun, with the trees that yield up baresma" [burned on the altar]. "We sacrifice unto Mithra, the lord of all countries, whom Ahura-Mazda made the most glorious of all the Gods in the world unseen." "So may Mithra and Ahura, the two great Gods, come to us for help. We sacrifice unto the bright, undying, shining, swifthorsed sun." And connected with the teaching of Zoroaster, Mithra is extolled by Ahura-Mazda as a beneficent and comforting spirit. Mithra ultimately came to occupy a place only a little inferior to that assigned, from the first, to the Ahura-Mazda.




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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:18 ZULU