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by Franz Cumont

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

Chicago, Open Court



THE present work, in which we purpose to treat of the origin and history of the Mithraic religion, does not pretend to offer a picture of the downfall of paganism. We shall not attempt, even in a general way, to seek for the causes which explain the establishment of the Oriental religions in Italy; nor shall we endeavour to show how their doctrines, which were far more active as fermenting agents than the theories of the philosophers, decomposed the national beliefs on which the Roman state and the entire life of antiquity rested, and how the destruct on of the edifice which they had disintegrated was ultimately accomplished by Christianity.

We shall not undertake to trace here the various phases of the battle waged between idolatry and the growing Church; this vast subject, which we hope some day to approach, lies beyond the scope of the present work. We are concerned here with one epoch only of this decisive revolution, it being our purpose to show with all the distinctness in our power how and why a certain Mazdean sect failed under the Cars to become the dominant religion of the empire.

The civilization of the Greeks had never succeeded in establishing itself among the Persians, and the Romans were no more successful in subjecting the Parthians to their sway. The significant fact which dominates the entire history of Hither Asia is that the Iranian world and the Gro-Latin world remained forever unamenable to reciprocal assimilation, forever sundered as much by a mutual repulsion, deep and instinctive, as by their hereditary hostility.

Nevertheless, the religion of the Magi, which was the highest blossom of the genius of Iran, exercised a deep influence on Occidental culture at three different periods. In the first place, Parseeism had made a very distinct impression on Judaism in its formative stage, and several of its cardinal doctrines were disseminated by Jewish colonists throughout the entire basin of the Mediterranean, and subsequently even forced themselves on orthodox Catholicism.

The influence of Mazdaism on European thought was still more direct, when Asia Minor was conquered by the Romans. Here, from time immemorial, colonies of Magi who had migrated from Babylon lived in obscurity, and, welding together their traditional beliefs and the doctrines of the Grecian thinkers, had elaborated little by little in these barbaric regions a religion original despite its complexity.

At the beginning of our era, we see this religion suddenly emerging from the darkness, and pressing forward, rapidly and simultaneously, into the valleys of the Danube and the Rhine, and even into the heart of Italy. The nations of the Occident felt vividly the superiority of the Mazdean faith over their ancient national creeds, and the populace thronged to the altars of the exotic god. But the progress of the conquering religion was checked when it came in contact with Christianity.

The two adversaries discovered with amazement, but with no inkling of their origin, the similarities which united them; and they severally accused the Spirit of Deception of having endeavored to caricature the sacredness of their religious rites. The conflict between the two was inevitable,--a ferocious and implacable duel: for the stake was the dominion of the world. No one has told the tale of its changing fortunes, and our imagination alone is left to picture the forgotten dramas that agitated the souls of the multitudes when they were called upon to choose between Ormadz and the Trinity.

We know the result of the battle only: Mithraism was vanquished, as without doubt it should have been. The defeat which it suffered was not due entirely to the superiority of the evangelical ethics, nor to that of the apostolic doctrine regarding the teaching of the Mysteries; it perished, not only because it was encumbered with the onerous heritage of a superannuated past, but also because its liturgy and its theology had retained too much of its Asiatic coloring to be accepted by the Latin spirit without repugnance. For a converse reason, the same battle, waged in the same epoch in Persia between these same two rivals, was without success, if not without honor, for the Christians; and in the realms of the Sassanids, Zoroastrianism never once was in serious danger of being overthrown.

The defeat of Mithraism did not, however, utterly annihilate its power. It had prepared the minds of the Occident for the reception of a new faith, which, like itself, came also from the banks of the Euphrates, and which resumed hostilities with entirely different tactics. Manichsm appeared as its successor and continuator. This was the final assault made by Persia on the Occident,--an assault more sanguinary than the preceding, but one which was ultimately destined to be repulsed by the powerful resistance offered to it by the Christian empire.

* * * * *

The foregoing rapid sketch will, I hope, give some idea of the great importance which the history of Mithraism possesses. A branch torn from the ancient Mazdean trunk, it has preserved in many respects the characteristics of the ancient worship of the Iranian tribes; and it will enable us by comparison to understand the extent, so much disputed, of the Avestan reformation. Again, if it has not inspired, it has at least contributed to give precise form to, certain doctrines of the Church, as the ideas relative to the powers of hell and to the end of the world. And thus both its rise and its decadence combine in explaining to us the formation of two great religions. In the heyday of its vigor, it exercised no less remarkable an influence on the society and government of Rome.

Never, perhaps, not even in the epoch of the Mussulman invasion, was Europe in greater danger of being Asiaticized than in the third century of our era, and there was a moment in this period when Carism was apparently on the point of being transformed into a Caliphate.

The resemblances which the court of Diocletian bore to that of Chosroes have been frequently emphasized. It was the worship of the sun, and in particular the Mazdean theories, that disseminated the ideas upon which the deified sovereigns of the West endeavored to rear their monarchical absolutism. The rapid spread of the Persian Mysteries among all classes of the population served admirably the political ambitions of the emperors. A sudden inundation of Iranian and Semitic conceptions swept over the Occident, threatening to submerge everything that the genius of Greece and Rome had so laboriously erected, and when the flood subsided it left behind in the conscience of the people a deep sediment of Oriental beliefs, which have never been completely obliterated.

I believe I have said sufficient to show that the subject of which I am about to treat is deserving of exhaustive and profound study. Although my investigations have carried me, on many sides, much farther than I had at the outset intended to go, I still do not regret the years of labor and of travel which they have caused me. The work which I have undertaken could not have been other than difficult.

On the one hand, we do not know to what precise degree the Avesta and the other sacred books of the Parsees represent the ideas of the Mazdeans of the Occident; on the other, these books constitute the sole material in our possession for interpreting the great mass of figured monuments which have gradually been collected. The inscriptions by themselves are always a sure guide, but their contents are upon the whole very meager. Our predicament is somewhat similar to that in which we should find ourselves if we were called upon to write the history of the Church of the Middle Ages with no other sources at our command than the Hebrew Bible and the sculptured dris of Roman and Gothic portals.

For this reason, our explanations of the Mithraic imagery will frequently possess nothing more than a greater or less degree of probability. I make no pretension to having reached in all cases a rigorously exact decipherment of these hieroglyphics, and 1 am anxious to ascribe to my opinions nothing but the value of the arguments which support them. 1 hope nevertheless to have established with certainty the general signification of the sacred images which adorned the Mithraic crypts. On the details of their recondite symbolism it is difficult to throw much light. We are frequently forced to take refuge here in the ars nesciendi.

The following pages reproduce the "Conclusions" printed at the end of the first volume of my large work, Textes et monuments figur relatifs aux mystes de Mithra (Brussels: H. Lamertin). 1 Stripped of the notes and references which there served to establish them, they are confined to epitomizing and co-ordinating the sum-total of the knowledge we possess concerning the origin and the characteristic features of the Mithraic religion. They will furnish, in fact, all the material necessary for readers desirous of general information on this subject.

To impart the same solidity to all the various portions of the edifice we have been reconstructing has been impossible. The uncertainties and discontinuity of the tradition do not permit this. Persons desirous of examining the stability of the foundations upon which my expositions rest, should consult the critical discussions of the "Introduction" to my larger work, the purpose of which is to ascertain the meaning and value of the written documents, and especially of the figured monuments, there described.

During the long period in which this work has been in preparation I have been frequently obliged to resort to that community of interest and sentiment which unites men of science throughout the world, and I may say I have rarely appealed to it in vain. The courtesy of devoted friends, several of whom are now no more, has often anticipated the expression of my wishes, and has spontaneously placed at my disposal things which I could scarcely have dared to request. I have endeavored in my large work to make due acknowledgment to each one of them. It would not be fitting to give in this place a mere mechanical list of the names of my collaborators, and by bestowing upon them commonplace thanks to appear in the light of cancelling the indebtedness which I owe them. But it is with a feeling of profound gratitude that I recall to mind the services which have been lavished upon me, and that, having now reached the end of my task, after more than ten years, I still think of all who have aided me in completing it.

The first edition of the present work appeared in 1900, and a second was called for not long afterwards. Few changes have been made. We have added a few notes, made a few references to recent articles, and adorned the pages with a considerable number of illustrations. 2 The most important addition is the chapter on Mithraic sculpture, which, in view of the extensive researches now being made as to the Oriental origins of Roman art, cannot fail to be of interest.

We have also to thank the many critics who have so kindly reviewed our Mysteries of Mithra, and have generously acknowledged that our reconstruction of this vanished creed rests upon an objective and complete interpretation of the sources. In a matter which is still so obscure, it was inevitable that certain divergences of opinion should have come to light, and our conclusions, at times bold, may, in certain points, have appeared to some erroneous. We have had regard for these expressions of doubt in our revision. If we have not always felt obliged to modify our opinion, it is not because we have not weighed the arguments of our critics, but because in so small a volume as the present, from which all discussions must be excluded, we had not the space to substantiate our conclusions. It is a delicate matter, we grant, to publish a text without the notes which support, explain, and modify it; but we trust that the reader will not feel too keenly this inevitable omission.


GHENT, May 1st, 1902.


1 Large octavo, 931 pages, 507 illustrations and 9 photogravure plates. This work, which is a monument of scholarship and industry, is a complete descriptive and critical collection of all the Mithraic texts, inscriptions, references, and monuments that have been recovered from antiquity.
2 The illustrations of the French edition numbered twenty-two. The present English edition contains more than double that number.


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