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Index / Religions / Historical /
Mithraism



Mithra Temple, Hathra, Iraq

Originally an Iranian religion, of which the male god Mithra was the most important deity. Mithraism was the state religion of Mitanni around 1400 BCE. With the fall of Mitanni, Mithraism was never more than part of other religious systems, mainly within Zoroastrianism, until the 2nd century BCE when it was defined as an independent religion by Greek adherents. Within the Roman Empire it rose to become the most influential, if not largest, religion until Christianity became defined as state religion.
The spread into the Mediterranean regions came with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. This form of Mithraism had gone through changes, although it is hard to identify all new and lost characteristics. One important change was that it now had become a cult reserved for men. Mithraism would stay that way for the rest of its history.
Mithraism arrived in Rome in the 1st century BCE, where the god's name was made into Mithras. The reverence of Mithras would initially spread slowly, changed to a quick spread through the empire in the 2nd century CE. It would develop into one of the dominating religions of the Roman empire. Mithraism was popular in Anatolia, but there are only few traces of its reverence in North Africa.
Up until the 2nd century CE Mithraism was especially popular among Roman soldiers, reflecting that the religion was not a pacifist one and dominated by men. From this group it also spread to traders and slaves, until the 3rd century CE when the cult was revered in all classes.

Cult and Organization
Mithraism was not an open and visible cult, it was a mystery cult. New members were recruited by friends and family. As much of its theology was oral, practically no written documentation has survived into our times.
The cult centre was the mithraeum, which was a cave or a building imitating a cave. The mithraeum was rarely an easily distinguishable building, the "cave" was often placed inside or beneath another building. A mithraeum was rarely large, usually holding space for little more than 30 or 40 at a time.
Within, benches along the side walls were used by the initiates for sacred meals. The inner hall concluded in the altar, usually placed on a platform. The mithraeum also always contained a well, serving either a symbolic purpose or was possibly used in rituals.
Mithraic initiates were divided into 7 ranks, beginning with raven and with father as the highest rank. Each initiate wore clothes and a mask symbolizing his rank. The initiation into a rank involved severe training and an concluding test.
Followers of Mithras were subject to strict regulations in their battle for the victory of light and truth.

Mithraism and Christianity
From around 100 CE was Mithraism one of the main rivals to Christianity. The two religions had many similarities. Both belief and ethical systems focused on humility, brotherly love, the rites of communion, the belief in the immortality of the soul, a final judgment and a resurrection.
Many followers of Mithras in the Roman Empire seem to have been inclined to convert to Christianity. This was especially the case after that Christianity had become state religion of the Roman Empire. Mithraism had a number of practices that seem to have been adopted by Christianity, like the holy weekday of Sunday and the celebration of Mithra's birthday on December 25 (as Christmas).
The main differences between Mithraism and Christianity was the exclusion of women and the openness towards polytheism.
Mithraism came probably to an end in 391 CE, with the official ban of all so-called "pagan" rites.
A Catholic bishop's headdress is called mitra.




By Tore Kjeilen