Why was the worship of Mithra so popular?
Today the god Mithra or Mithras is not recognized by many in the West. Mithra is often seen as just one of the many gods that was once worshiped in Europe, the Near East, and South Asia. However, in the early centuries of Christianity, one can argue the worship of Mithras rivaled influence and importance of Christianity. If Christianity had failed to plant itself in Europe, it may have been possible for Mithraism to become a lasting and significant religion in Asia and Europe. The Mithra faith may have also influenced both Christianity and other later religions.
Mithra and Key Beliefs
Mithra or Mithras was a god with an origin in Iran and India, where his imagery and display is often associated with the sun. The religion is mostly associated with its peak in worship that occurred around the 1st-4th century CE (or AD), where it was worshiped from Scotland to India. Key beliefs include the ritual slaughter of the bull by Mithra, which would likely lead to the presence of new life or emergence of life, although the meaning is not fully understood (Figure 1). Worship centered around underground temples known as Mithraea (or Mithraeum singular) that attempted to represent caves or secret, hidden places. Sometimes, in fact, the temples were in caves (Figure 2). These temples were representative of the world and the ceremonies held were to reflect a type of global worship. The worship ceremony often involved ritual feasting and was held in a type of secrecy that members take an oath to follow and worship the god. Members would be gradually initiated into the sacred rights where a total of seven levels that worshipers had to attain being part of their spiritual journey. The religion seemed to mostly incorporate men, although this might not be the case in every place. Because no written sources have survived that directly speak to the theology, outside of small inscriptions or secondary references by writers, there is still relatively little known about the religion. However, that is probably in part because it was a type of mystery cult, intended to an orally taught faith. From Persian sources, Mithra is seen as a god of justice, a good shepherd to his people, and infallible in fighting evil.
Mithraic belief likely borrowed or was incorporated within Zoroastrianism, which believed in a cosmic struggle of evil vs. good. Mithra could be involved in the final struggle against evil, where good ultimately wins, but this is not clear. The god was seen as being born or December 25th, where he emerges out of a rock, although several other gods, particularly those associated as sun gods, held that date of birth.  This date does likely influence later Christian adoptions as December 25th for the birth of Christ. The god Mithra may have also been born of a virgin birth and the importance of communal meals, similar to early Christianity, are some aspects the religions share. The religious order also seems to have a type of hierarchy of power, with local priests and something akin to Bishops and chief leaders within the cult developed as part of the religious order that one can climb. Worship and belief also seems to be related to water, where believers may have been baptized into the order. Nevertheless, aspects of Mithra worshiped within the Roman Empire also borrowed from other Greco-Roman gods, indicating that some adaptation of the original ideas of Mithra had occurred after it was adopted from the original Indo-Persian god.
Extent of Mithra Worship
Although Mithra was worshiped in regions as far as India and Scotland, the extent of how widely spread within populations and how much of a true rival the religion was to other emerging religions like Christianity is not agreed upon by scholars. There are hundreds of Mithra temples, such as that shown in Figure 2, scattered throughout the Roman Empire, with perhaps the chief Roman temple in Rome itself; sometimes existing temples to various gods also had Mithraea underneath them. It seems to have been a religion that was brought to the Roman Empire by Roman soldiers stationed in the eastern part of the empire, who became influenced by the worship of this god in the Parthian and later Sassanian empires and in the Near East in general as the soldiers encountered the local population. The god was also very popular in Indian and Iran, while Mithra was likely combined with earlier sun gods in the Near East, including Shamash and Ba'al.
However, it is likely that the Mithra in the Roman Empire was understood differently that that of Persia and Iran, although many similarities remained. Thus, scholars do debate how unified the belief was of Mithra and the adoption of the god could have been as such that local customs in different places adapted the religion to their own concepts, mainly incorporating the god with other gods or syncretizing religious ideas. Although in any one place the number of worshipers may have been low, the vast extent of the worship of the god does make Mithra perhaps the most widespread god until the rise of Christianity and its subsequent proselytizing faith. The wide extent of the worship of this god may explain why some ideas were adopted by Christianity. However, more likely the animosity toward this cult reflects that it may have been seen as a threat to the early Christian faith in the first few centuries after Christ. This could explain why some ideas of Mithra could have been adopted by Christians, so that some keeping some aspects of the faith may have been more attractive to some worshipers in joining Christianity; however, the subsequent suppression of the Mithra cults likely reflects it was mostly seen as a threat.
Decline of Mithra
In some ways, the initial fact the religion came from Iran may have been part of its own undoing. Rome and the Parthian and later Sassanian Empires were great rivals. As the conflict between these empires increased, Roman authorities may have begun to frown upon this religion. In particular, after the rise of Christianity, once it was accepted by Constantine in 312 CE, the Roman Empire began to have both religious but also secular reasons to persecute the cults of Mithra. Temples to Mithra were torn down and in some cases churches built directly on top of them. Practices of Mithra were claimed to be satanic and that forced the believers to go underground. A few believers held out in the Alps region, but the faith continued to survive in Iran until recently, although it declined as Islam spread in the 7th century CE. In India, the belief in Mithra has continued and cult of worship has continues in some areas, although it has likely evolved significantly over the centuries. Many beliefs related to Mithra are now incorporated with Zoroastrianism.
Conclusion and Impact
Scholars still debate the impact of Mithraism on Christianity. While many agree some parallel exists, such as the Christmas birthday of Christ, use of meals or communal meals as part of the worship, religious hierarchy, etc., the connection is somewhat tenuous. Some of the similarities could be attributed to the impact of other religions and practices. Mithraism and Christianity also had major theological differences. Nevertheless, the spread of the religion of Mithra demonstrated that the world just before the rise of Christianity was prepared to adopt monotheistic religions. By the 100 BC, there were empires that spanned Eurasia. Someone could go from Britain to India and then China by only traversing through four countries. Religious ideas could move from east to west across Eurasia very quickly. This made the world a smaller place and religious ideas, such as Mithraism, were able to spread rapidly along routes of trade and travel.
In summary, the rapid spread of Mithra from the 1st century CE shows that religious ideas could now move very fast across regions. This likely paved the way for Christianity in that many people began adopt the idea of shared religions or ideas for many different people. While the Mithraism impact on Christianity is debatable, the rise of Mithra foreshadows the eventual rise of Christianity. The quick success of Mithra would have shown early Christians that it was possible to quickly spread their faith.
- For more on the origins of Mithra, see: Ulansey, D. (1991). The origins of the Mithraic mysteries: cosmology and salvation in the ancient world. New York: Oxford Univ. Pr.
- For a summary on the belief system, see: Cooper, D. J. (1996). Mithras: mysteries and initiation rediscovered. York Beach, Me: S. Weiser.
- For more on Christian and Mithraism connections, see: Hensen, A. (2013). Mithras: der Mysterienkult an Limes, Rhein und Donau. Stuttgart: Theiss.
- For more on how Mithra is combined and integrated with Roman gods, see: Christensen, L. B., Hammer, O., & Warburton, D. (Eds.). (2013). The handbook of religions in ancient Europe / edited by Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer and David A. Warburton. Durham ; Bristol, CT: Acumen Pub Ltd, pg. 258.
- For more on where Mithra was worshiped, see: Grant, J., Gorin, S., & Fleming, N. (2008). The archaeology coursebook: an introduction to themes, sites, methods and skills (3rd ed). London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 179.
- For more on how Mithra was adopted across the Roman Empire, see: Beck, R. (2007). The religion of the Mithras cult in the Roman Empire: mysteries of the unconquered sun (1. publ. in paperback). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
- For more on the decline of Mithra worship, see: Brown, P. R. L., & Lizzi Testa, R. (Eds.). (2011). Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire: the breaking of a dialogue, (4th - 6th century A. D.) ; proceedings of the international conference at the Monastery of Bose (October 2008). Wien: LIT.
- For areas where the modern worship of Mithra exists, see: Nabarz, P. (2005). The mysteries of Mithras: the pagan belief that shaped the Christian world. Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, pg. 16.
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