The Mysteries of Mithra (MIRCEA ELIADE A HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS IDEAS From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity Chapter 2)

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217. The Mysteries of Mithra
According to Plutarch (Pompey 24. 5), the Cilician pirates "secretly celebrated the Mysteries" of Mithra; conquered and captured by Pompey, they disseminated this cult in the West. This is the first explicit reference to the Mysteries of Mithra. 41 We do not know by what process the Iranian god glorified by the Mihr-yast (see § 109) was transformed into the Mithra of the Mysteries.
Probably his cult developed in the circle of the Magi established in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Supremely a tutelary or champion god, Mithra had become the protector of the Parthian sovereigns. The funerary monument of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 B.C.) shows the god clasping the king's hand. But it seems that the royal cult of Mithra did not include any secret ritual; from the end of the Achaemenid period the great ceremonies known as the Mithrakana were celebrated publicly.
The mythology and theology of the Mithraic Mysteries are accessible to us chiefly through figured monuments. Literary documents are few and for the most part refer to the cult and the hierarchy of the initiatory grades. One myth told of the birth of Mithra from a rock (de petra nlltus), just like the anthropomorphic being Ullikummi (§ 46), the Phrygian Agdistis (§ 207), and a celebrated hero of Ossetic mythology.41 This is why the cave played a primary part in the Mysteries of Mithra. On the other hand, according to a tradition transmitted by al-Biruni, on the eve of his enthronement the Parthian king retired to a cave, where his subjects approached and venerated him like a newborn infant-more precisely, like an infant of supernatural origin.43
Armenian traditions tell of a cave in which Meher (i.e., Mihr, Mithra) shut himself up and from which he emerged once a year.
In fact the new king was Mithra, reincarnated, born again. 44 This Iranian theme is found again in the Christian legends of the Nativity in the light-filled cave at Bethlehem.45 In short, Mithra's miraculous birth was an integral part of a great Irano-syncretistic myth of the cosmocrator-redeemer.
The essential mythological episode involves the theft of the bull by Mithra and its sacrifice, undertaken (to judge from certain monuments) by order of the Sun (Sol). The immolation of the bull is depicted on almost all the Mithraic bas-reliefs and paintings. Mithra performs his mission unwillingly; turning his head away, he grasps the bull's nostrils with one hand and plunges the knife into its side with the other. "From the body of the dying victim were born all herbs and health-giving plants ....
From its spinal marrow sprouted bread-bestowing wheat, from its blood the vine, which produces the sacred drink of the mysteries."46 In the Zoroastrian context, Mithra's sacrifice of the bull appears enigmatic. As we saw (§ 215), the murder of the primordial Bull is the work of Ahriman. A late text (Bundahisn 6. E. 1-4), however, reports beneficent effects from this immolation: from the primordial Bull's semen, purified by the light of the moon, the animal species are born and the plants grow from its body. From the morphological point of view, this "creative murder" is explained better as part of an agrarian religion than of an initiatory cult. On the other hand, as we have just seen (§ 216), at the end of time the ox Hathayos will be sacrificed by Saoshyant and Ohrmazd, and the drink produced from its fat or its marrow will make men immortal. So Mithra's exploit could be compared with this eschatological sacrifice; in that case, it could be said that initiation into the Mysteries anticipated the final Renovation, in other words, the salvation of the mystes.48
The immolation of the bull takes place in the cave in the presence of the Sun and the Moon. The cosmic structure of the sacrifice is indicated by the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the seven planets, and the symbols of the winds and the four seasons.
Two personages, Cautes and Cautopates, dressed as Mithra and each holding a lighted torch, watch the god's exploit attentively; they represent two other epiphanies of Mithra as solar god (indeed, Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the "triple Mithra," Epist. 7).
The relations between Sol and Mithra raise a problem that has not yet been solved; on the one hand, though he is inferior to Mithra, Sol orders him to sacrifice the bull; on the other hand, the inscriptions term Mithra "Sol invictus." Certain scenes present Sol kneeling before Mithra; others show the gods clasping hands. However this may be, Mithra and Sol seal their friendship by a banquet in which they share the flesh of the bull. The feast takes place in the cosmic cave. The two gods are served by persons wearing animal masks. This banquet constitutes the model for ritual meals, at which the mystai, wearing masks that indicate their initiatory grades, serve the chief (pater) of the conventicle. It is assumed that Sol's ascension to Heaven, a scene depicted in several bas-reliefs, takes place soon afterward.
In his turn, Mithra mounts to the sky; some images show him running behind the Sun's chariot.
Mithra is the only god who does not suffer the same tragic destiny as the gods of the other Mysteries, so we may conclude that the scenario of Mithraic initiation did not include ordeals suggesting death and resurrection. Before their initiation the postulants undertook on oath (sacramentum) to keep the secret of the Mysteries. A passage in Saint Jerome (Ep. 107, ad Laetam) and a number of inscriptions have supplied us with the nomenclature of the seven grades of initiation: Crow (corax), Bride (nymphus), Soldier (miles), Lion (leo), Persian (Perses), Courier of the Sun (heliodromus), and Father (pater). Admission to the first grades was granted even to children from the age of seven; presumably they received a certain religious education and learned chants and hymns. The community of the mystai was divided into two groups: the "servitors" and the "participants," the latter group being made up of initiates of the grade of leo or higher. 49
We know nothing of the initiations into the different grades. In their polemic against the Mithraic "sacraments" (inspired by Satan!), the Christian apologists refer to a "baptism," which presumably introduced the neophyte into his new life. 50 Probably this rite was reserved for a neophyte preparing for the grade miles. 51
We know that he was offered a crown, but the mystes had to refuse it, saying that Mithra "was his only crown."52 He was then marked on the forehead with a redhot iron (Tertullian, De praescr. haeret. 40) or purified with a burning torch (Lucian, Menippus 7). In the initiation into the grade of leo, honey was poured on the candidate's hands and his tongue was smeared with it. Now honey was the food of the blessed and of newborn infants.
According to a Christian author of the fourth century, the candidates' eyes were blindfolded, and a frantic troop then surrounded them, some imitating the cawing of crows and the beating of their wings, others roaring like lions. Some candidates, their hands tied with the intestines of chickens, had to jump over a ditch filled with water. Then someone appeared with a sword, cut the intestines, and announced himself as the liberator. 54 Initiation scenes depicted in paintings in the mithraeum at Capua probably represent some of these initiatory ordeals. Cumont describes one of the best-preserved of these scenes as follows:
"The naked mystes is seated, with his eyes blindfolded and his hands perhaps bound behind his back. The mystagogue approaches him from behind, as if to push him forward. Facing him, a priest in Oriental dress, with a high Phrygian cap on his head, comes forward, holding out a sword. In other scenes the naked mystes kneels or even lies on the f100r."55 We also know that the mystes had to be present at a simulated murder, and he was shown a sword stained with the victim's blood."; Very probably, certain initiatory rituals involved fighting a bugbear. Indeed, the historian Lampridius writes that the Emperor Commodus desecrated the Mysteries of Mithra by an actual homicide (Commodus 9; Cumont, Textes et monuments, vol. 2, p. 21). Presumably in acting as "Father" in initiating a postulant into the grade of miles, Commodus in fact killed him when he was supposed only to simulate killing him.
Each of the seven grades was protected by a planet: corax by Mercury, nymphus by Venus, miles by Mars, leo by Jupiter, Perses by the Moon, heliodromus by the Sun, and pater by Saturn. These astral relations are clearly illustrated in the mithraea at Santa Prisca and Ostia. 57 On the other hand, Origen (Contra Celsum 6. 22) speaks of a ladder with seven rungs made of different metals (lead, tin, bronze, iron, alloy, silver, and gold) and associated with different divinities (lead with Kronos, tin with Aphrodite, etc.). Very probably such a ladder played a ritual part-a part of which we know nothing-while at the same time serving as a symbol for the Mithraic conventicle.
218. "If Christianity had been halted • • • "
When the Mysteries of Mithra are discussed, it appears inevitable to quote Ernest Renan's famous sentence: "If Christianity had been halted in its growth by some mortal illness, the world would have been Mithraist" (Marc Aurele, p. 579). Presumably Renan was impressed by the prestige and popularity that the Mysteries of Mithra enjoyed in the third and fourth centuries; he was certainly struck by their dissemination through all the provinces of the Roman Empire. In fact this new Mystery religion inspired respect by its power and originality. The secret cult of Mithra had succeeded in combining the Iranian heritage with GrecoRoman syncretism. In its pantheon the principal gods of the classical world rubbed shoulders with Zurvan and other Oriental divinities. In addition, the Mysteries of Mithra had assimilated and integrated the spiritual currents characteristic of the Imperial period: astrology, eschatological speculations, solar religion (interpreted, by the philosophers, as solar monotheism). Despite its Iranian heritage, its liturgical language was Latin. Unlike other Oriental religions of salvation, which were governed by an exotic body of priests (Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians), the chiefs of the Mysteries, the patres, were recruited among thebItalic populations and those of the Roman provinces. In addition,
Mithraism differed from the other Mysteries by the absence of orgiastic or monstrous rites. A religion especially of soldiers, the cult impressed the profane by the discipline, temperance, and
morality of its members-virtues that were reminiscent of the old Roman tradition.
As for the dissemination of Mithraism, it was immense: from Scotland to Mesopotamia, from North Africa and Spain to Central Europe and the Balkans. Most of its sanctuaries have been
discovered in the old Roman provinces of Dacia, Pannonia, and Germania. (The cult appears not to have made its way into Greece or Asia Minor.) However, it must be taken into account
that a conventicle accepted, at most, one hundred members.
Consequently, even in Rome, where at a certain moment there were a hundred sanctuaries, the number of adepts did not number above 10,000. Mithraism was almost exclusively a secret cult reserved for soldiers; its dissemination followed the movements of the legions. The little that we do know of its initiatory rituals resembles the initiations into the Indo-European "men's societies" (see § 175) more than the initiations into the Egyptian or Phrygian Mysteries. For, as we have observed, Mithra was the only god of Mysteries who had not suffered death. And, alone among the other secret cults, Mithraism did not admit women. Now at a time when the participation of women in cults of salvation had reached a degree never before known, such a prohibition made the conversion of the world to Mithraism difficult if not decidedly unlikely.
Yet the Christian apologists feared the possible "competition" of Mithraism, for they saw in the Mysteries a diabolical imitation of the Eucharist. Justin (Apol. 66) accused the "evil demons"
of having prescribed the sacramental use of bread and water; Tertullian (De praescr. 40) spoke of the "oblation of bread." In fact, the ritual meal of initiates commemorated the banquet of Mithra and Sol after the sacrifice of the bull. It is difficult to determine if, for Mithraic initiates, such feasts constituted a sacramental meal or if they were more like other ritual banquets that were common during the Imperial period. 59 However this may be, there can be no denying the religious significance of the Mithraic banquets (or, for that matter, that of the other Mystery
cults), since they followed a divine model. The mere fact that the Christian apologists vigorously denounced them as diabolical imitations of the Eucharist testifies to their sacred character. As
for initiatory baptism, it was also practiced by other cults. But for the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries, the similarity with Mithraism here is even more disquieting, for the sign marked on the forehead with a hot iron reminded them of the signatio, the rite that completed the sacrament of baptism; in addition, from the second century on, the two religions celebrated the nativity of their God on the same day (December 25) and shared similar beliefs concerning the end of the world, the Last Judgment, and the resurrection of bodies.
But these beliefs and mythico-ritual scenarios belonged to the Zeitgeist of the Hellenistic and Roman period. In all probability the theologians of the various syncretistic religions of salvation did not hesitate to borrow certain ideas and formulas whose value and success they had recognized (we have already mentioned this in connection with the Phrygian Mysteries, § 207).
In the last analysis, what was important was the personal experience and theological interpretation of the mythico-ritual scenario revealed by conversion and the initiatory ordeals (it is enough to remember the numerous valorizations of sacraments both among non-Christians and in the history of Christianity).60
Several emperors supported Mithraism, especially for political reasons. At Carnutum in 307 or 308 Diocletian and other Augusti consecrated an altar to Mithra, "the benefactor of the Empire."
But Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312 sealed the fate of Mithraism. The cult would recover its prestige under the very short reign of Julian; that philosopher-emperor declared himself a Mithraist. His death in 363 was followed by a period of tolerance, but Gratian's edict in 382 ended official support of Mithraism. Like all the religions of salvation and all the esoteric conventicles, the secret cult of Mithra, forbidden and persecuted, disappears as a historical reality. But other creations of the Iranian religious genius continue to make their way into a world that is in the process of being Christianized. Beginning in the third century, the success of Manichaeanism shakes the foundations of the Church, and the influence of Manichaean dualism continues all through the Middle Ages. On the other hand, a number of Iranian religious ideas-notably, some motifs of the Nativity, angelology, the theme of the magus, the theology of Light, and certain elements of Gnostic mythology-will end by being assimilated by Christianity and Islam; in some instances their traces can still be recognized in the period extending from the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. 61

Mircea Eliade comenta a similitude de certos ritos mitriaicos e cristiáns que escandalizan aos cristiáns e o ferro quente de Bascuas (He was then marked on the forehead with a redhot iron). No seu caso, traducir con Google.