Mithraism, or the Cult of Mithras, was a secretive male-only mystery religion in Rome in 2nd & 3rd centuries CE loosely based on Persian Zoroastrian beliefs, but probably did not strongly resemble the original.
The primary God Mithras may have been a Greco-Roman rebirth of the Indo-Iranian God, Mithra, though the connection, besides the similarity of the name and the representation of Mithras as a Persian in imagery and writing, is not clear.
The Cult of Mithra appeared in Rome in the early 2nd century CE and was popular among men of all social classes throughout the Roman empire.
Mithraism was repressed along with all the rest of the Pagan cults after Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century CE and had virtually disappeared by the 5th century.
Members of the cult met in caves or cave-like temples arranged like a formal dining room, with an image of Mithras killing a bull arranged near the head of the table and astrological symbols throughout.
Ceremonial activities seem to have included communal meals, initiatory ritual and seven levels of initiation. We have a limited understanding of the cult due to its secretive nature and the lack of written records.
Mithraism, known as the Cult of Mithras, was an ancient mystery religion centered around the worship of Mithras, a Persian god associated with light and the sun.
It featured secretive rituals and teachings, with initiation ceremonies and a hierarchical structure reserved for its members.
Mithraism gained popularity in the Roman Empire, particularly among soldiers and merchants, coexisting with other religions of the time, including early Christianity.
However, it eventually declined and disappeared, leaving behind archaeological evidence that provides insights into its practices and beliefs.
Mithraism and Rebirth
It is believed that the idea of rebirth was central to Mithraism. The ritual sacrifice of a bull – an animal that powerfully symbolized strength and fertility – was linked to the establishment of a new cosmic order.
Further, the sacrifice was linked to the moon and its associations with fertility. Those practicing Mithraism believed that new life would spring from the death of the bull.
Seven Degrees of Initiation
There were strict rules that governed how the feasts of Mithrains were organized, including around hygiene. The order had seven degrees of initiation: each degree had its own type of clothing. These degrees were corax (raven), nymphus (bridegroom), miles (solider), leo (lion), perses (Persian), heliodromus (sun-runner) and pater (father). Further, each of these degrees was linked to one of the seven planets.
Different tasks at feasts were performed by those of a specific degree. For example, the “ravens” carried the food, while the “lions” offered sacrifices to the “fathers.” Tests of courage were also required to be undertaken by initiates, and paintings in the Temple of Mithras at Santa Maria Capua Vetere give us an idea of what these may have looked like. Typically, these “tests” are thought to have involved exposure to cold, heat, or threatened peril.
Admission into the Mithraic community was finalized with a handshake with the “pater.” Initiates were referred to as “syndexioi” – those united by handshake. This chimes with the fact that, in ancient Iran, the traditional way of signifying a solemn understanding or concluding a treaty between two parties was by one person taking the right hand of the other.
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