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by Franz Cumont

translated from the second revised French edition by Thomas J. McCormack

Chicago, Open Court



FOR more than three centuries Mithraism was practised in the remotest provinces of the Roman empire and under the most diverse conditions. It is not to be supposed for a moment that during this long period its sacred traditions remained unchanged, or that the philosophies which one after another swayed the minds of antiquity, or for that matter the political and social conditions of the empire, did not exercise upon them some influence. But undoubted though it be that the Persian Mysteries underwent some modification in the Occident, the inadequacy of the data at our disposal prevents us from following this evolution in its various phases and from distinctly defining the local differences which it may have presented. All that we can do is to sketch in large outlines the character of the doctrines which were taught by it, indicating the additions and revisions which they apparently underwent. Besides, the alterations that it suffered were largely superficial. The identity of the images and hieratical formulas of the most remote periods and places, proves that before the time of its introduction into the Latin countries reformed Mazdaism had already consolidated its theology.



The statue here reproduced was found in the, mithrm of Ostia before mentioned, where C. Valerius Heracles and his sons dedicated it in the year 190 A.D. This leontocephalous figure is entirely nude, the body being entwined six times by a serpent, the head of which rests on the skull of the god. Four wings decorated with the symbols of the seasons issue from the back. Each hand holds a key, and the right in addition a long scepter, the symbol of authority, A thunderbolt is engraved on the breast. On the base of the statue may be seen the hammer and tongs of Vulcan, the cock and the pine-cone consecrated to culapius (or possibly to the Sun and to Attis), and the wand of Mercury--all characteristic adjuncts of the Mithraic Saturn, and symbolizing the embodiment in him of the powers of all the gods.

Contrary to the ancient Gro-Roman paganism, which was an assemblage of practices and beliefs without logical bond, Mithraism had a genuine theology, a dogmatic system, which borrowed from science its fundamental principles.


Fig. 21.

The belief appears generally to prevail that Mithra was the only Iranian god that was introduced into the Occident, and that everything in his religion that does not relate directly to him was adventitious and recent. This is a gratuitous and erroneous supposition. Mithra was accompanied in his migrations by a large representation from the Mazdean Pantheon, and if he was in the eyes of his devotees the principal hero of the religion to which he gave his name, he was nevertheless not its Supreme God.

At the pinnacle of the divine hierarchy and at the origin of things, the Mithraic theology, the heir of that of the Zervanitic Magi, placed boundless Time. Sometimes they would call it Αἰών or Sulum, Κρόνος or Saturnus; but these appellations were conventional and contingent, for he was considered ineffable, bereft alike of name, sex, and passions. In imitation of his Oriental prototype, he was represented in the likeness of a human monster with the head of a lion and his body enveloped by a serpent. The multiplicity of attributes with which his statues are loaded is in keeping with the kaleidoscopic nature of his character. He bears the scepter and the bolts of divine sovereignty and holds in each hand a key as the monarch of the heavens whose portals he opens. His wings are symbolic of the rapidity of his flight.


Fig. 22.

Nude leontocephalous figure standing upright on a globe; in each hand a key; four wings; thrice entwined by a serpent, the head of which passes over the skull and is about to enter the mouth. Sketched by Bartoli from a description found in a mithrm discovered in the 16th century in Rome, between the Quirinal and the Viminal.

The reptile whose sinuous folds enwrap him, typifies the tortuous course of the Sun on the ecliptic; the signs of the zodiac engraved on his body and the emblems of the seasons that accompany them, are meant to represent the celestial and terrestrial phenomena that signalize the eternal flight of the years. He creates and destroys all things; he is the Lord and master of the four elements that compose the universe, he virtually unites in his person the power of all the gods, whom he alone has begotten. Sometimes he is identified with Destiny, at others with the primitive light or the primitive fire; while both conceptions rendered it possible for him to be compared with the Supreme Cause of the Stoics,--the heat which pervades all things, which has shaped all things, and which under another aspect was Fatality (Εἱμαρμένη). See Figs. 20-23; also Fig. 49.

The preachers of Mithra sought to resolve the grand problem of the origin of the world by the hypothesis of a series of successive generations. The first principle, according to an ancient belief found in India as well as in Greece, begot a primordial couple, the Heaven and the Earth; and the latter, impregnated by her brother, gave birth to the vast Ocean which was equal in power to its parents, and which appears to have formed with them the supreme triad of the Mithraic Pantheon. The relation of this triad to Kronos or Time from which it had sprung, was not clearly defined; and the starry Heavens of which the revolutions determined, as was believed, the course of all events, appear at times to have been confounded with the eternal Destiny.


Fig. 23.

Bas-relief of white marble. Found in the same mithrm as the statue of Figure 22. Naked to the waist; the limbs clothed in wide trousers; the arms extended; and in each hand a torch. From the back four wings issue, two pointing upwards and two downwards, and around each is a serpent. Before the god is a circular burning altar, and from his mouth a band representing his breath extends to the fire of the altar.

These three cosmic divinities were personified under other names less transparent. The Heavens were naught less than Ormazd or Jupiter, the Earth was identified with Spea-Armai or Juno, and the Ocean was similarly called Ap-Nap or Neptune. Like the Greek theogonies, so the Mithraic traditions narrated that Zeus succeeded Kronos, the king of the first ages, in the government of the world. The bas-reliefs show us this Mazdean Saturn placing in the hands of his son the thunderbolts which were the symbol of his sovereign power. Henceforward Jupiter with his consort Juno was to reign over all the other gods, all of whom owe to this couple their existence.

The Olympian deities were sprung in fact from the marriage of the celestial Jupiter with the terrestrial Juno. Their eldest daughter is Fortune (Fortuna primigenia), who bestows on her worshippers every grace of body and every beauty of soul. Her beneficent generosity is contrasted with Anangke, which represents the unalterable rigor of fate. Themis or the Law, the Moiror the Fates, were other personifications of Destiny, which manifests under various forms a character which was susceptible of infinite development. The sovereign couple further gave birth not only to Neptune who became their peer, but to a long line of other immortals: Artagnes or Hercules, whose heroic deeds the sacred hymns celebrated; Shahrar or Mars, who was the god of the metals and succored the pious warrior in his combats; Vulcan or Atar, the genius of fire; Mercury, the messenger of Zeus; Bacchus or Haoma, the personification of the plant that furnished the sacred drink; Silvanus or Drvpa, protector of horses and agriculture; then Anais, the goddess of the fecundating waters, who has been likened to Venus and Cybele and who, presiding over war, was also invoked under the name of Minerva; Diana or Luna, who made the honey which was used in the purifications; Vanaiti or Nike, who gave victory to kings; Asha or Arete, perfect virtue; and others besides. This innumerable multitude of divinities was enthroned with Jupiter or Zeus on the sun-tipped summits of Mt. Olympus and composed the celestial court.

Contrasted with this luminous abode, where dwelt the Most High gods in resplendent radiance, was a dark and dismal domain in the bowels of the earth. Here Ahriman or Pluto, born like Jupiter of Infinite Time, reigned with Hecate over the maleficent monsters that had issued from their impure embraces.

These demoniac confederates of the King of Hell then ascended to the assault of Heaven and attempted to dethrone the successor of Kronos; but, shattered like the Greek giants by the ruler of the gods, these rebel monsters were hurled backward into the abyss from which they had risen (Figure 24).


Fig. 24.

Found at Virunum, in Noricum, and now in the Historical Museum Rudolfinum, Klagenfurt, Austria. The central part of the monument is entirely destroyed; the head of the sun-god from the left-hand corner alone having been left (see Fig. 11), The left border represents a Hellenized illustration of Ahura-Mazda's struggle with demons, after the manner of the gigantomachy. The lower part of the same fragment exhibits the birth of Mithra.

They made their escape, however, from that place and wandered about on the surface of the earth, there to spread misery and to corrupt the hearts of men, who, in order to ward off the evils that menaced them, were obliged to appease these perverse spirits by offering them expiatory sacrifices. The initiate also knew how by appropriate rites and incantations to enlist them in his service and to employ them against the enemies whose destruction he was meditating.

The gods no longer confined themselves to the ethereal spheres which were their appanage. If theogony represents them as gathered in Olympus around their parents and sovereigns, cosmology exhibits them under another aspect. Their energy filled the world, and they were the active principles of its transformations. Fire, personified in the name of Vulcan, was the most exalted of these natural forces, and it was worshipped in all its manifestations, whether it shone in the stars or in the lightning, whether it animated living creatures, stimulated the growth of plants, or lay dormant in the bowels of the earth. In the deep recesses of the subterranean crypts It burned perpetually on the altars, and its votaries were fearful to contaminate its purity by sacrilegious contact.

They opined with primitive artlessness that fire and water were brother and sister, and they entertained the same superstitious respect for the one as for the other. They worshipped alike the saline floods which filled the deep seas and which were termed indifferently Neptune and Oceanus, the springs that gurgled from the recesses of the earth, the rivers that flowed over its surface, and the placid lakes resplendent in their limpid sheen. A perpetual spring bubbled in the vicinity of the temples, and was the recipient of the homage and the offerings of its visitors. This font perennial (fons perennis) was alike the symbolization of the material and moral boons that the inexhaustible generosity of Infinite Time scattered throughout the universe, and that of the spiritual rejuvenation accorded to wearied souls in the eternity of felicity.

The primitive earth, the nourishing earth, the mother earth (terra mater), fecundated by the waters of Heaven, occupied a like important place, if not in the ritual, at least in the doctrine of this religion; and the four cardinal winds which were correlated with the deified Seasons were invoked as genii to be both feared and loved: feared because they were the capricious arbiters of the temperature, which brought heat or cold, tempests or calms, which alternately moistened and dried the atmosphere, which produced the vegetation of the spring and withered the foliage of the autumn,--and loved as the diverse manifestations of the air itself, which is the principle of all life.

In other words, Mithraism deified the four simple bodies which, according to the physics of the ancients, composed the universe. An allegorical group, often reproduced, in which a lion represented fire, a cup water, a serpent the earth, pictured the struggle of the opposing elements, which were constantly devouring one another and whose perpetual transmutations and infinitely variable combinations provoked all the phenomena of nature (Fig. 25).

Hymns of fantastic symbolism celebrated the metamorphoses which the antitheses of these four elements produced in the world. The Supreme God drives a chariot drawn by four steeds which turn ceaselessly round in a fixed circle. The first, which bears on its shining coat the signs of the planets and constellations, is sturdy and agile and traverses the circumference of the fixed circle with extreme velocity; the second, less vigorous and less rapid in its movements, wears a somber robe, of which one side only is illuminated by the rays of the sun; the third proceeds more slowly still; and the fourth turns slowly in the same spot, champing restlessly its steel bit, whilst its companions move round it as round a stationary column in the center. The quadriga turns slowly and unimpeded, regularly completing its eternal course. But at a certain moment the fiery breath of the first horse falling upon the fourth ignites its mane, and its neighbor, exhausted by its efforts, inundates it with torrents of perspiration. Finally, a still more remarkable phenomenon takes place. The appearance of the quartette is transformed.


Fig. 25.

In the center Mithra with the two torch-bearers; immediately above, the signs of the Zodiac; immediately above these, Mithra aiming his arrow at the rock; below the bull a group composed of the lion, the cup, and the servant. For the obverse of this bas-relief.

The steeds interchange natures in such wise that the substance of all passes over to the most robust and ardent of the group, just as if a sculptor, after having modelled figures in wax, had borrowed the attributes of one to complete the others, and had ended by merging all into a single form. Then, the conquering steed in this divine struggle, having become by his triumph omnipotent, is identified with the charioteer himself. The first horse is the incarnation of fire or ether, the second of air, the third of water, and the fourth of the earth. The accidents which befall the last-mentioned horse, the earth, represent the conflagrations and inundations which have desolated and will in the future desolate our world; and the victory of the first horse is the symbolic image of the final conflict that shall destroy the existing order of all things.

The cosmic quadriga, which draws the suprasensible Cause, has not been figured in the sacred iconography. The latter reserved for a visible god this emblematic group. The votaries of Mithra, like the ancient Persians, adored the Sun that traversed each day in its chariot the spaces of the firmament and sank at dusk extinguishing its fires in the ocean. When it appeared again on the horizon, its brilliant light scattered in flight the spirits of darkness, and it purified all creation, to which its radiance restored life. A like worship was accorded to the Moon, which voyaged in the spheres above on a cart drawn by white bulls. The animal of reproduction and of agriculture had been assigned to the goddess that presided over the increase of plants and the generation of living creatures.

The elements, accordingly, were not the only natural bodies that were deified in the Mysteries. The two luminaries that fecundated nature were worshipped here the same as in primitive Mazdaism, but the conceptions which the Aryas formed of them have been profoundly transformed by the influences of Chaldn theories.

As we have already said, the ancient belief of the Persians had been forcibly subjected in Babylon to the influence of a theology which was based on the science of its day, and the majority of the gods of Iran had been likened to the stars worshipped in the valley of the Euphrates. They acquired thus a new character entirely different from their original one, and the name of the same deity thus assumed and preserved in the Occident a double meaning. The Magi were unsuccessful in harmonizing these new doctrines with their ancient religion, for the Semitic astrology was as irreconcilable with the naturalism of Iran as it was with the paganism of Greece. But looking upon these contradictions as simple differences of degree in the perception of one and the same truth, the clergy reserved for the ite exclusively the revelation of the original Mazdean doctrines concerning the origin and destiny of man and the world, whilst the multitude were forced to remain content with the brilliant and superficial symbolism inspired by the speculations of the Chaldns. The astronomical allegories concealed from the curiosity of the vulgar the real scope of the hieratic representations, and the promise of complete illumination, long withheld, fed the ardor of faith with the fascinating allurements of mystery.

The most potent of these sidereal deities, those which were most often invoked and for which were reserved the richest offerings, were the Planets. Conformably to astrological theories, the planets were endowed with virtues and qualities for which it is frequently difficult for us to discover adequate reasons. Each of the planetary bodies presided over a day of the week, to each some one metal was consecrated, each was associated with some one degree in the initiation, and their number has caused a special religious potency to be attributed to the number seven. In descending from the empyrean to the earth, the souls, it was thought, successively received from them their passions and qualities. These planetary bodies were frequently represented on the monuments, now by symbols recalling the elements of which they were formed or the sacrifices which were offered to them, and now under the aspect of the immortal gods throned on the Greek Olympus: Helios, Selene, Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite, Kronos. But these images have here an entirely different signification from what they possess when they stand for Ahura-Mazda, Zervan, or the other gods of Mazdaism. Then the personifications of the Heavens or of Infinite Time are not seen in them, but only the luminous stars whose wandering course can be followed amid the constellations. This double system of interpretation was particularly applied to the Sun, conceived now as identical with Mithra and now as distinct from him. In reality there were two solar divinities in the Mysteries, one Iranian and the heir of the Persian Hvare, the other Semitic, the substitute of the Babylonian Shamash, identified with Mithra.

By the side of the planetary gods who have still a double character, purely sidereal divinities received their tribute of homage. The twelve signs of the Zodiac, which in their daily revolution subject creatures to their adverse influences, were represented in all of the mithrms under their traditional aspect (Fig. 26). Each of them was without doubt the object of particular veneration during the month over which it presided, and they were customarily grouped by threes according to the Seasons to which they conformed and with the worship of which theirs was associated. (See also Fig. 49.)

But the signs of the Zodiac were not the only constellations that were incorporated by the priests in their theology. The astronomical method of interpretation, having been once adopted in the Mysteries, was freely extended and made to embrace all possible figures.


Fig. 26.

In the center the tauroctonous Mithra with the torch-bearers surrounded by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the lower corners busts of the Winds; in the upper corners the Sun on his quadriga and the Moon on a chariot drawn by bulls. The inscription reads: Ulpius Silvanus emeritus leg(ionis) II Aug(ust votum solvit. (that is, honorably discharged at Orange).

There was scarcely any object or animal that was not in some way conceived as the symbolic image of a stellar group. Thus the raven, the cup, the dog, and the lion, that ordinarily accompany the group of the tauroctonous Mithra, were readily identified with the constellations of the same name. The two celestial hemispheres that alternately pass above and below the earth were personified and likened to the Dioscuri, who, according to the Hellenic fable, lived and died by turns.


Fig. 27.

After Chiflet, reproduced from C. W. King.

Mythology and erudition were everywhere mingled. The hymns described a hero like the Greek Atlas who bore on his untiring shoulders the globe of Heaven, and who is regarded as the inventor of astronomy. But these demi-gods were relegated to the background; the planets and the signs of the Zodiac never ceased to preserve their incontestable primacy, for it was they above all others, according to the astrologers, that controlled the existence of men and guided the Course of things.

This was the capital doctrine that Babylon introduced into Mazdaism: belief in Fatality, the conception of an inevitable Destiny controlling the events of this world and inseparably conjoined with the revolution of the starry heavens.



Showing Mithra born from the rock between the Dioscuri, surrounded by Mithraic symbols, among them the cup and bread of the Eucharist. (Reproduced from Walsh.)

This Destiny, identified with Zervan, became the Supreme Being which engendered all things and ruled the universe. The development of the universe is subject to immutable laws and its various parts are united in the most intimate solidarity. The position of the planets, their mutual relations and energies, at every moment different, produce the series of terrestrial phenomena. Astrology, of which these postulates were the dogmas, certainly owes some share of its success to the Mithraic propaganda, and Mithraism is therefore partly responsible for the triumph in the West of this pseudo-science with its long train of errors and terrors.

The rigorous logic of its deductions assured to this stupendous chimera a more complete domination over reflecting minds than the belief in the infernal powers and in the invocation of spirits, although the latter commanded greater sway over popular credulity. The independent power attributed by Mazdaism to the principle of evil afforded justification for all manner of occult practices. Necromancy, oneiromancy, belief in the evil eye and in talismans, in witchcraft and conjurations, in fine, all the puerile and sinister aberrations of ancient paganism, found their justification in the re assigned to demons who incessantly interfered in the affairs of men. The Persian Mysteries are not free from the grave reproach of having condoned, if not of having really taught, these various superstitions. And the title "Magus" became in the popular mind, not without good reason, a synonym for "magician."

Yet neither the conception of an inexorable necessity unpityingly forcing the human race toward an unknown goal, nor even the fear of malevolent spirits bent on its destruction, was competent to attract the multitudes to the altars of the Mithraic gods. The rigor of these somber doctrines was tempered by a belief in benevolent powers sympathizing with the sufferings of mortals. Even the planets were not, as in the didactic works of the theoretical astrologists, cosmic powers whose favorable or sinister influence waxed great or diminished conformably to the revolutions of a circle fixed for all eternity. They were, as in the doctrine of the old Chaldn religion, divinities that saw and heard, that rejoiced or lamented, whose wrath might be appeased, and whose favor might be gained by prayers and by offerings. The faithful reposed their confidence in the support of these benevolent protectors who combated without respite the powers of evil.

The hymns that celebrated the exploits of the gods have unfortunately almost all perished, and we know these epic traditions only through the monuments which served to illustrate them. Nevertheless, the character of this sacred poetry is recognizable in the dris which has come down to us. Thus, the labors of Verethraghna, the Mazdean Hercules, were chanted in Armenia. It is told here how he strangled the dragons and aided Jupiter in his triumphant combat with the monstrous giants; and like the votaries of the Avesta, the Roman adepts of Mazdaism compared him to a bellicose and destructive boar.

But the hero that enjoyed the greatest re in these warlike tales was Mithra. Certain mighty deeds, which in the books of Zoroastrianism were attributed to other divinities, were associated with his person. He had become the center of a cycle of legends which alone explain the preponderant place that was accorded him in this religion. It is because of the astounding feats accomplished by him that this god, who did not hold supreme rank in the celestial hierarchy, has given his name to the Persian Mysteries that were disseminated in the Occident.

For the ancient Magi, Mithra was, as we have seen, the god of light, and as the light is borne by the air he was thought to inhabit the Middle Zone between Heaven and Hell, and for this reason the name of μεσίτης was given to him. In order to signalize this attribute in the ritual, the sixteenth or middle day of each month was consecrated to him. When he was identified with Shamash, his priests in investing him with the appellation of "intermediary" doubtless had in mind the fact that, according to the Chaldn doctrines, the sun occupied the middle place in the planetary choir.


Fig. 29.


(Museum of Palermo.)

But this middle position was not exclusively a position in space; it was also invested with an important moral significance. Mithra was the "mediator" between the unapproachable and unknowable god that reigned in the ethereal spheres and the human race that struggled and suffered here below. Shamash had already enjoyed analogous functions in Babylon, and the Greek philosophers also saw in the glittering globe that poured down upon this world its light, the ever-present image of the invisible Being, of whom reason alone could conceive the existence.

It was in this adventitious quality of the genius of the solar light that Mithra was best known in the Occident, and his monuments frequently suggest this borrowed character. It was customary to represent him between two youthful figures, one with an uplifted, the other with an inverted, torch. These youths bore the enigmatic epithets of Cauti and Cautopati, and were naught else than the double incarnation of his person (Figs. 18 and 29). These two dadophori, as they were called, and the tauroctonous hero formed together a triad, and in this "triple Mithra" was variously seen either the star of day, whose coming at morn the cock announced, who passed at midday triumphantly into the zenith and at night languorously fell toward the horizon; or the sun which, as it waxed in strength, entered the constellation of Taurus and marked the beginning of spring,--the sun whose conquering ardors fecundated nature in the heart of summer and the sun that afterwards, enfeebled, traversed the sign of the Scorpion and announced the return of winter. From another point of view, one of these torchbearers was regarded as the emblem of heat and of life, and the other as the emblem of cold and of death. Similarly, the tauroctonous group was variously explained with the aid of an astronomical symbolism more ingenious than rational. Yet these sidereal interpretations were nothing more than intellectual diversions designed to amuse the neophytes prior to their receiving the revelation of the esoteric doctrines that constituted the ancient Iranian legend of Mithra.


Fig. 30.

Bas-relief found in the crypt of St. Clements at Rome.

The story of this legend is lost, but the bas-reliefs recount certain episodes of it, and its contents appear to have been somewhat as follows:

The light bursting from the heavens, which were conceived as a solid vault, became, in the mythology of the Magi, Mithra born from the rock. The tradition ran that the "Generative Rock," of which a standing image was worshipped in the temples, had given birth to Mithra. on the banks of a river, under the shade of a sacred tree, and that shepherds alone, ensconced in a neighboring mountain, had witnessed the miracle of his entrance into the world.


Fig. 31.

Holding in his hand the Grape which in the West replaced the Haoma of the Persians.

They had seen him issue forth from the rocky mass, his head adorned with a Phrygian cap, armed with a knife, and carrying a torch that had illuminated the somber depths. below (Fig. 30). Worshipfully the shepherds drew near, offering the divine infant the first fruits of their flock and their harvests. But the young hero was naked and exposed to the winds that blew with violence: he had concealed himself in the branches of a fig-tree, and detaching the fruit from the tree with the aid of his knife, he ate of it, and stripping it of its leaves he made himself garments. Thus equipped for the battle, he was able henceforward to measure his strength with the other powers, that peopled the marvellous world into which he had entered. For although the shepherds were pasturing their flocks when he was born, all these things came to pass before there were men on earth.

The god with whom Mithra first measured his strength was the Sun. The latter was compelled to render homage to the superiority of his rival and to receive from him his investiture. His conqueror placed upon his head the radiant crown that he has borne in his daily course ever since his downfall. Then he caused him to rise again, and extending to him his right hand concluded with him a solemn covenant of friendship. And ever after, the two allied heroes faithfully supported each other in all their enterprises (Fig. 32).

The most extraordinary of these epic adventures was Mithra's combat with the bull, the first living creature created by Ormazd.


Fig. 32.

Showing scenes from the life of Mithra. Among them Mithra crowning the sun-god with a radiate halo, his ascension in the solar chariot to Heaven, and his smiting the rock from which the waters flowed.

This ingenious fable carries us back to the very beginnings of civilization. It could never have risen save among a people of shepherds and hunters with whom cattle, the source of all wealth, had become an object of religious veneration.


Fig. 33.

Clay cup found at Lanuvium.

In the eyes of such a people, the capture of a wild bull was an achievement so highly fraught with honor as to be apparently no derogation even for a god.

The redoubtable bull was grazing in a pasture on the mountain-side; the hero, resorting to a bold stratagem, seized it by the horns and succeeded in mounting it. The infuriated quadruped, breaking into a gallop, struggled in vain to free itself from its rider; the latter, although unseated by the bull's mad rush, never for a moment relaxed his hold; he suffered himself to be dragged along, suspended from the horns of the animal, which, finally exhausted by its efforts, was forced to surrender. Its conqueror then seizing it by its hind hoofs, dragged it backwards over a road strewn with obstacles (Fig. 33) into the cave which served as his home.

This painful journey (Transitus) of Mithra became the symbol of human sufferings. But the bull, it would appear, succeeded in making its escape from its prison, and roamed again at large over the mountain pastures. The Sun then sent the raven, his messenger, to carry to his ally the command to slay the fugitive. Mithra received this cruel mission much against his will, but submitting to the decree of Heaven he pursued the truant beast with his agile dog, succeeded in overtaking it just at the moment when it was taking refuge in the cave which it had quitted, and seizing it by the nostrils with one hand, with the other he plunged deep into its flank his hunting-knife. Then came an extraordinary prodigy to pass.


Fig. 34.

The one to the left has the head of Jupiter (Silvanus?). The right hand holds a pine-cone, the left a branch entwined by a serpent. On the right shoulder is an eagle, and the breast is decorated with Mithraic figures in relief: the tauroctonous Mithra, a cup, the head of a ram, and a five-rayed disc. The right-hand bust is that of a bearded Oriental with Phrygian cap, holding in the right hand a pine-cone and in the left a torch entwined by a serpent--a crude piece of work and probably of Asiatic origin.

From the body of the moribund victim sprang all the useful herbs and plants that cover the earth with their verdure. From the spinal cord of the animal sprang the wheat that gives us our bread, and from its blood the vine that produces the sacred drink of the Mysteries. In vain did the Evil Spirit launch forth his unclean demons against the anguish-wrung animal, in order to poison in it the very sources of life; the scorpion, the ant, the serpent, strove in vain to consume the genital parts and to drink the blood of the prolific quadruped; but they were powerless to impede the miracle that was enacting. The seed of the bull, gathered and purified by the Moon, produced all the different species of useful animals, and its soul, under the protection of the dog, the faithful companion of Mithra, ascended into the celestial spheres above, where, receiving the honors of divinity, it became under the name of Silvanus the guardian of herds. Thus, through the sacrifice which he had so resignedly undertaken, the tauroctonous hero became the creator of all the beneficent beings on earth; and, from the death which he had caused, was born a new life, more rich and more fecund than the old.

Meanwhile, the first human couple had been called into existence, and Mithra was charged with keeping a watchful eye over this privileged race. It was in vain the Spirit of Darkness invoked his pestilential scourges to destroy it; the god always knew how to balk his mortiferous designs. Ahriman first desolated the land by causing a protracted drought, and its inhabitants, tortured by thirst, implored the aid of his ever-victorious adversary. The divine archer discharged his arrows against a precipitous rock, and here gushed forth from it a spring of living water to which the suppliants thronged to cool their parched palates. But a still more terrible cataclysm followed, which menaced all nature. A universal deluge depopulated the earth, which was overwhelmed by the waters of the rivers and the seas. One man alone, secretly advised by the gods, had constructed a boat and had saved himself, together with his cattle, in an ark which floated on the broad expanse of waters. Then a great conflagration ravaged the world and consumed utterly both the habitations of men and of beasts. But the creatures of Ormazd also ultimately escaped this new peril, thanks to celestial protection, and henceforward the human race was permitted to wax great and multiply in peace.

The heroic period of history was now closed, and the terrestrial mission of Mithra accomplished. In a Last Supper, which the initiated commemorated by mystical love feasts, he celebrated with Helios and the other companions of his labors the termination of their common struggles. Then the gods ascended to the Heavens. Borne by the Sun on his radiant quadriga, Mithra crossed the Ocean, which sought in vain to engulf him (Fig. 35), and took up his habitation with the rest of the immortals.


Fig. 35.

In the center, the tauroctonous Mithra with the two torch-bearers; to the left, Mithra mounted on the bull, and Mithra taurophorous; to the right, a lion stretched lengthwise above a cup (symbols of fire and water). Upper border: Bust of Luna; new-born Mithra reclining near the banks of a stream; shepherd standing, with lambs; bull in a hut and bull in a boat; underneath, the seven altars; Mithra drawing a bow; bust of the Sun. Lower border: Banquet of Mithra and the Sun; Mithra mounting the quadriga of the Sun; the Ocean surrounded by a serpent.

But from the heights of Heaven he never ceased to protect the faithful ones that piously served him.

This mythical recital of the origin of the world enables us to understand the importance which the tauroctonous god enjoyed in his religion, and to comprehend better what the pagan theologians endeavored to express by the title "mediator." Mithra is the creator to whom Jupiter-Ormazd committed the task of establishing and of maintaining order in nature. He is, to speak in the philosophical language of the times, the Logos that emanated from God and shared His omnipotence; who, after having fashioned the world as demiurge, continued to watch faithfully over it. The primal defeat of Ahriman had not reduced him to absolute impotence; the struggle between the good and the evil was still conducted on earth between the emissaries of the sovereign of Olympus and those of the Prince of Darkness; it raged in the celestial spheres in the opposition of propitious and adverse stars, and it reverberated in the hearts of men,--the epitomes of the universe.

Life is a battle, and to issue forth from it victorious the law must be faithfully fulfilled that the divinity himself revealed to the ancient Magi. What were the obligations that Mithraism imposed upon its followers? What were those "commandments" to which its adepts had to bow in order to be rewarded in the world to come? Our incertitude on these points is extreme, for we have not the shadow of a right to identify the precepts revealed in the Mysteries with those formulated in the Avesta. Nevertheless, it would appear certain that the ethics of the Magi of the Occident had made no concession to the license of the Babylonian cults and that it had still preserved the lofty character of the ethics of the ancient Persians. Perfect purity had remained for them the cult toward which the life of the faithful should tend. Their ritual required repeated lustrations and ablutions, which were believed to wash away the stains of the soul. This catharsis or purification both conformed to the Mazdean traditions and was in harmony with the general tendencies of the age. Yielding to these tendencies, the Mithraists carried their principles even to excess, and their ideals of perfection verged on asceticism. Abstinence from certain foods and absolute continence were regarded as praiseworthy.

Resistance to sensuality was one of the aspects of the combat with the principle of evil. To support untiringly this combat with the followers of Ahriman, who, under multiple forms, disputed with the gods the empire of the world, was the duty of the servitors of Mithra. Their dualistic system was particularly adapted to fostering individual effort and to developing human energy. They did not lose themselves, as did the other sects, in contemplative mysticism; for them, the good dwelt in action. They rated strength higher than gentleness, and preferred courage to lenity. From their long association with barbaric religions, there was perhaps a residue of cruelty in their ethics. A religion of soldiers, Mithraism exalted the military virtues above all others.


Fig. 36.

Found at Sarmizegetusa.

In the war which the zealous champion of piety carries on unceasingly with the malign demons, he is assisted by Mithra. Mithra is the god of help, whom one never invokes in vain, an unfailing haven, the anchor of salvation for mortals in all their trials, the dauntless champion who sustains his devotees in their frailty, through all the tribulations of life. As with the Persians, so here he is still the defender of truth and justice, the protector of holiness, and the intrepid antagonist of the powers of darkness. Eternally young and vigorous, he pursues them without mercy; "always awake, always alert," it is impossible to surprise him; and from his never-ceasing combats he always emerges the victor. This is the idea that unceasingly occurs in the inscriptions, the idea expressed by the Persian surname Nabarze (Fig. 36), by the Greek and Latin epithets of ἀνίκητος, invictus, insuperabilis. As the god of armies, Mithra caused his prot to triumph over their barbarous adversaries, and likewise in the moral realm he gave them victory over the instincts of evil, inspired by the Spirit of Falsehood, and he assured them salvation both in this world and in that to come.

Like all the Oriental cults, the Persian Mysteries mingled with their cosmogonic fables and their theological speculations, ideas of deliverance and redemption. They believed in the conscious survival after death of the divine essence that dwells within us, and in punishments and rewards beyond the tomb.

The souls, of which an infinite multitude peopled the habitations of the Most High, descended here below to animate the bodies of men, either because they were compelled by bitter necessity to fall into this material and corrupt world, or because they had dropped of their own accord upon the earth to undertake here the battle against the demons. When after death the genius of corruption took possession of the body, and the soul quitted its human prison, the devas of darkness and the emissaries of Heaven disputed for its possession. A special decree decided whether it was worthy to ascend again into Paradise. If it was stained by an impure life, the emissaries of Ahriman dragged it down to the infernal depths, where they inflicted upon it a thousand tortures; or perhaps, as a mark of its fall, it was condemned to take up its abode in the body of some unclean animal. If, on the contrary, its merits outweighed its faults, it was borne aloft to the regions on high.

The heavens were divided into seven spheres, each of which was conjoined with a planet. A sort of ladder, composed of eight superposed gates, the first seven of which were constructed of different metals, was the symbolic suggestion in the temples, of the road to be followed to reach the supreme region of the fixed stars. To pass from one story to the next, each time the wayfarer had to enter a gate guarded by an angel of Ormazd. The initiates alone, to whom the appropriate formulas had been taught, knew how to appease these inexorable guardians. As the soul traversed these different zones, it rid itself, as one would of garments, of the passions and faculties that it had received in its descent to the earth. It abandoned to the Moon its vital and nutritive energy, to Mercury its desires, to Venus its wicked appetites, to the Sun its intellectual capacities, to Mars its love of war, to Jupiter its ambitious dreams, to Saturn its inclinations. It was naked, stripped of every vice and every sensibility, when it penetrated the eighth heaven to enjoy there, as an essence supreme, and in the eternal light that bathed the gods, beatitude without end. 1

It was Mithra, the protector of truth, that presided over the judgment of the soul after its decease. It was he, the mediator, that served as a guide to his faithful ones in their courageous ascent to the empyrean; he was the celestial father that received them in his resplendent mansion, like children who had returned from a distant voyage.

The happiness reserved for these quintessentialized monads in a spiritual world is rather difficult to conceive, and doubtless this doctrine had but feeble attraction for vulgar minds. Another belief, which was added to the first by a sort of superftation, offered the prospect of more material enjoyment. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was rounded off by the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh.

The struggle between the principles of good and evil is not destined to continue into all eternity. When the age assigned for its duration shall have rolled away, the scourges sent by Ahriman will compass the destruction of the world. A marvellous bull, analogous to the primitive bull, will then again appear on earth, and Mithra will redescend and reawaken men to life. All will sally forth from the tombs, will assume their former appearance, and recognize one another. Humanity entire will unite in one grand assembly, and the god of truth will separate the good from the bad. Then in a supreme sacrifice, he will immolate the divine bull; will mingle its fat with the consecrated wine, and will offer to the just this miraculous beverage which will endow them all with immortality. Then Jupiter-Ormazd, yielding to the prayers of the beatified ones, will cause to fall from the heavens a devouring fire which will annihilate all the wicked. The defeat of the Spirit of Darkness will be achieved, and in the general conflagration Ahriman and his impure demons will perish and the rejuvenated universe enjoy unto all eternity happiness without end.

We who have never experienced the Mithraic spirit of grace are apt to be disconcerted by the incoherence and absurdity of this body of doctrine, such as it has been shown forth in our reconstruction. A theology at once naive and artificial here combines primitive myths, the naturalistic tendency of which is still transparent, with an astrological system whose logical structure only serves to render its radical falsity all the more palpable. All the impossibilities of the ancient polytheistic fables here subsist side by side with philosophical speculations on the evolution of the universe and the destiny of man. The discordance between tradition and reflection is extremely marked here and it is augmented by the contrariety between the doctrine of fatalism and that of the efficacy of prayer and the need of worship. But this religion, like any other, must not be estimated by its metaphysical verity. It would ill become us to-day to dissect the cold corpse of this faith in order to ascertain its inward organic vices. The important thing is to understand how Mithraism lived and grew great, and why it failed to win the empire of the world.

Its success was in great part undoubtedly due to the vigor of its ethics, which above all things favored action. In an epoch of anarchy and emasculation, its mystics found in its precepts both stimulus and support. The conviction that the faithful ones formed part of a sacred army charged with sustaining with the Principle of Good the struggle against the power of evil, was singularly adapted to provoking their most pious efforts and transforming them into ardent zealots.

The Mysteries exerted another powerful influence, also, in fostering some of the most exalted aspirations of the human soul: the desire for immortality and the expectation of final justice. The hopes of life beyond the tomb which this religion instilled in its votaries were one of the secrets of its power in these troublous times, when solicitude for the life to come disturbed all minds.

But several other sects offered to their adepts just as consoling prospects of a future life. The special attraction of Mithraism dwelt, therefore, in other qualities of its doctrinal system. Mithraism, in fact, satisfied alike both the intelligence of the educated and the hearts of the simple-minded. The apotheosis of Time as First Cause and that of the Sun, its physical manifestation, which maintained on earth heat and light, were highly philosophical conceptions. The worship rendered to the Planets and to the Constellations, the course of which determined terrestrial events, and to the four Elements, whose infinite combinations produced all natural phenomena, is ultimately reducible to the worship of the principles and agents recognized by ancient science, and the theology of the Mysteries was, in this respect, nothing but the religious expression of the physics and astronomy of the Roman world.

This theoretical conformity of revealed dogmas with the accepted ideas of science was calculated to allure cultivated minds, but it had no hold whatever upon the ignorant souls of the populace. These, on the other hand, were eminently amenable to the allurements of a doctrine that deified the whole of physical and tangible reality. The gods were everywhere, and they mingled in every act of life; the fire that cooked the food and warmed the bodies of the faithful, the water that allayed their thirst and cleansed their persons, the very air that they breathed, and the light that illuminated their paths, were the objects of their adoration. Perhaps no other religion ever offered to its sectaries in a higher degree than Mithraism opportunities for prayer and motives for veneration. When the initiated betook himself in the evening to the sacred grotto concealed in the solitude of the forests, at every step new sensations awakened in his heart some mystical emotion. The stars that shone in the sky, the wind that whispered in the foliage, the spring or brook that babbled down the mountain-side, even the earth that he trod under his feet, were in his eyes divine, and all surrounding nature provoked in him a worshipful fear for the infinite forces that swayed the universe.


1 This Mithraic doctrine has recently been compared with other analogous beliefs and studied in detail by M. Bossuet. "Die Himmelreise der Seele" (Archiv f Relikionswissenschaft, Vol. IV., 1901, p. 160 ff.).


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