Mithras—also called Mithra—was a deity from ancient Indo-Iranian* mythology. He became a major figure in the religion known as Zoroastrianism, which originated in ancient Persia*. The cult of Mithras spread into the Mediterranean world, where for a time it rivaled Christianity as the fastest-growing new religion.

Some scholars identify Mithras with Mitra, a mythic figure of the Aryan peoples who invaded northern India around the l600s B . C . Mitra, the god of friendship, was associated with the sun and served as one of the judges of the dead. He was supposed to bring worthy people back to life after the universe ended. Some of Mitra's functions lingered in the developing mythology of Mithras.

The Persians saw Mithras as the principal assistant of Ahura Mazda, the god of goodness and light. Mithras battled demons, sorcerers, and other evildoers and helped the souls of worthy humans. In another role, as a god of war, he rode in a golden chariot pulled by four horses. Born from the earth, Mithras emerged from a broken rock with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. These objects represented his two roles as sun god and war god.

In the Greek and Roman form of the cult, Mithras's most important mythic act was the slaying of a great bull, whose body and blood became the source of all life on earth. Images of Mithras usually show him killing a bull. Such sacrifices were central to his worship, which took place in shrines located in caves or cavelike buildings in honor of the god's subterranean origins.

Little concrete information about the Greek and Roman form of Mithraism survives. Most descriptions of how the religion was practiced in Greece and Rome come from later Christian writers. Among Romans, Mithraism became an all-male cult much favored by soldiers, and the army carried it to Britain, Germany, and other outposts of the empire. Several Roman emperors worshiped Mithras. One was Diocletian, who in A . D . 307 dedicated a temple on the Danube River to Mithras, "Protector of the Empire."

deity god or goddess

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

sorcerer magician or wizard

subterranean under the earth

pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs

Mithraism bore many similarities to Christianity. For example, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25, to have performed miracles, and to have eaten a last supper with his 12 followers. After Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 300s, Mithraism was suppressed along with other pagan beliefs.

See also Ahura Mazda ; Persian Mythology .

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