Mithra and Mithras

Mithras killing the celestial bull. Roman relief from Dormagen, now in Bonn's Rheinisches Landesmuseum.

Yesterday, I received an impressive present: a book on the cult of Mithra(s). Impressive: it measures 50×31 centimeters and was published more than a century-and-a-half ago, in 1847. To be honest, I do not think that Félix Lajard’s Introduction à l’étude du culte public et des mystères de Mithra en Orient et en Occident, is still useful today. Yet, it is a beautiful book, and it is charming to read that it was printed “par autorisation du roi à l’ imprimerie royale”. Such were the courtesies of the ancien régime.

The author has collected all kinds of drawings of Iranian and Roman reliefs, seals, and coins, and tries to trace the development of the cult of Mithras in Iran and the Roman Empire. In other words, we get lots of pictures of oriental and Roman art objects that Lajard believed to be relevant to the study of the mysteries of Mithras.

It is hard not to be impressed by his attempts to get the details straight. He had not traveled as widely as we expect scholars to do, and was therefore unable to decide which representation of a particular relief was the best, so we often get two pictures of the same monument. I was surprised to learn how large the differences between drawings can be.

This late Iranian Mithra shows no similarities to the contemporary western bull-slayer reliefs (Taq-e Bostan)

The problem was, of course, that he had no idea what he was looking for. The decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform, which revolutionized our knowledge of the Near East, took place in 1857, and Lajard still could adduce parallel illustrations that we now know to be irrelevant, or only marginally relevant, to the study of Mithraism.

The main problem, and a problem that Lajard could have avoided, was the assumption that there was a continuity from Iran to the Roman Empire. Of course it would be exaggerated to state there was no continuity at all: the name Mithras is clearly derived from Mithra and one of the grades of the Roman mysteries was called “Persian”. But the cult of Mithras is essentially a Roman phenomenon. With one possible exception, no Mithraic cave has ever been excavated in Iran, nor are there indications that Avestan hymns were chanted in the Roman mithraea.

It often happens that elements from one civilization cross over to another, and it would certainly have been possible for an Iranian god to join the Roman pantheon. But how much that was Iranian was he allowed to take with him? Compare it to Christianity, which is essentially a type of Judaism accepted by Greeks and Romans. Some converts believed that only a couple of ideas were really useful; men like Marcion of Sinope thought that the Old Testament books could be done away with, and that the Jewish context was best forgotten. Other Christian authors, like Irenaeus, stressed the need to keep in touch with the original foundations. The Roman cult of Mithras seems to have originated with a Marcion-like prophet, who took a couple of lose elements and abandoned the rest of Iranian Mithraism.

Bull and lion on an Iranian relief (Persepolis): no connection to the Roman mithraic reliefs.

This is now very obvious, but it has taken some time to get here. The study of the cult of Mithras has for a long time been dominated by Cumont and Vermaseren, great scholars who believed, just like Lajard, that there had been some kind of continuity.

As I said, Lajard could have avoided the mistake. Even the most unattentive reader thumbing through the pages of his beautiful book will immediately realize that not a single element of the Roman Mithras reliefs – all those bulls being killed – can be connected to ancient Iran. Almost all elements of the Roman monuments, like the bull, the snake, the raven, the cup, the raven, the scorpion, the ear of wheat, and finally the twins Cautes and Cautopates, are absent from the Iranian iconography. (The lion may be an exception, but in Iranian art, the animal is either killed by the king or attacking a bull. He is not watching how someone else kills a bull.)

Yet, Lajard put the eastern and western iconography together as if they had much in common. He was essentially assuming what needed to be proven.

And this, it seems, is what happens often to the study of Roman Mithraism, and not just by people studying its origins. People studying its influence make the same error: assuming a continuity from the Roman mysteries of Mithras to Christianity that needs to be proved. I will not digress on this last point; I just refer to Roger Pearse’s interesting blog articles on this subject. I found his most recent installment and this article especially worthwhile, but he has written more articles on Mithras (which I would love to use for my collection of common errors). Recommended.

5 Responses to Mithra and Mithras

  1. paddybrown says:

    Interesting post. I think probably the best modern parallel to Roman Mithraism is Wicca. People from Christian-heritage countries, in trying to reconstruct a pre-Christian religion, have come up with a single supreme deity (the goddess) who has three persons (maiden, mother and crone), an earth-bound, sacrificial male deity (the horned god), and no other deities at all. The supreme deity is female rather than male, and there is no equivalent to the Holy Spirit, but otherwise it’s not very far from Christianity at all. They’ve just taken a few “exotic” pagen elements and plugged them into the matrix they understand as “religion”, which is mainly informed by Christianity, and come up with something that bears very little resemblance to what we know about pre-Christian religions in Europe.

    Roman Mithraists seem to have done the same thing with Mithra/s – taken an exotic Persian deity and plugged him into the familar matrix of Greco-Roman mystery religions. I sometimes wonder if something similar happened with Roman Christianity.

  2. rpearse says:

    Jona, you’re welcome to use anything I’ve written!

  3. cypsy says:


    “The Roman cult of Mithras seems to have originated with a Marcion-like prophet”

    I’m partial to the idea of a bricoleur too. As Richard Gordon put it, “somewhat like the founder of the Zeus-group at Philadelphia whose rules happen to have survived”. (This is a reference to a certain Dionysios of Philadelphia, early first century BC).

    The attraction of founder theory is that it accounts for the lack of evidence of any predecessor form. It could also account for the speed with which the cult went from zero in 79 AD (Pompeii/Herculaneum) to widely dispersed locations in 100 AD (Rome, Carnuntum, Nida and Mogontiacum, Caesarea Maritima). Of course, founder theory also accounts for the cult’s pseudo-exoticism (ala “in imitation of Zoroaster who was the first to worship Mithras in a cave, in a land of springs and flowers”. In connection with this you might recall that the two of us discussed “alien wisdom”/pseudepigrapha one afternoon in November 2008).

    However, despite all the charm of founder theory, the problem of dispersion remains. The earliest traces of the mysteries appear more or less simultaneously in Rome, on the Danubian frontier (Carnuntum), on the Rhine (Nida, Mogontiacum) and in Judea (Caesarea Maritima). Given the fairly uniform iconography, architecture, etc at all these places, there has to be one central location from which the first paters dispersed. Where is it?

  4. cypsy says:

    Incidentally, Lajard wasn’t the first to confuse borrowing with origins.

    Already in 1833, Josef von Hammer supposed that “Le culte de Mithra forme en effet une des parties les plus essentielles de la doctrine de Zoroastre, et des passages nombreux du Zend-Avesta s’expliquent avec beaucoup de détail sur la nature et les fonctions de Mithra, médiateur de la création, de ce protecteur très vigilant, de ce héros très fort triomphateur invincible de ce génie de l’amour et de la vérité dont l’emblême le plus vrai et le plus magnifique est le soleil.” (Mémoire sur le culte de Mithra, 1833, p. 9)

    Unless one knew that he was speaking of a Roman cult, one would think he was talking about an Iranian one. Keep in mind that, in 1833, Avestan had barely been deciphered, and there were no European language sources on the “Zend-Avesta” (sic) yet.

    Von Hammer was summarized by James Darmesteter (Le Zend Avesta II, 1893, pp. 443), which in turn was the source for Franz Cumont.

    Thus our being stuck today with the legacy of Cumont’s “le mithraïsme, en un mot, est la forme romaine du mazdéisme”. Argh.

    But one has to give them due credit too. After all, in current popular mindlessness, the appeal of these 19th century notions (and Nyberg’s/Widengren’s infamous fantasy of the 20th) is trumped only by that of Pokémon characters.

  5. JustparaDOX says:

    Re: paddybrown
    “I sometimes wonder if something similar happened with Roman Christianity.”

    It did…

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