According to the great Belgian scholar Franz Cumont (868
- 1947), the myth of Mitra should be placed inside
the Iranian dualism marked by the rivalry between Angra
Mainyu (Avesta language), or Ahriman (middle Persian
language), maker of evil, and Spenta Mainyu - the spirit
of good: both divinities created by Ahura Mazda, God
In this fight Mitra helps Ahura Mazda destroy evil.
Franz Cumont’s theory remained undisputed for seventy
years, and still today it sounds rather appealing.
However, recently a remarkable publication by
David Ulansey, Professor of philosophy and religion at
the California Institute of Integral Studies, has
brought to our notice significant new elements
concerning the cult of Mithras,
freeing it from Iranian roots and placing
its formation in Hellenistic times, even though the name
Mithras can already be found in ancient Iranian
identified the origin of the myth in the discovery of
precession by the astronomer Hipparchos of Nicaea, also
known as Hipparchos of Rhodes (circa 190 - 126 B.C),
together with the beliefs of
stoicism. The Professor has made use of many original
contributions in his work on the astrological content of
the myth, already familiar to Franz Cumont, but this
does not necessarily mean that the theory of Iranian
influences on the formation of the Mithras myth must be
discarded. Especially since there are clear indications
that the precession was known to the Chaldeans before
(The precession is a rotation of the Earth’s axis
around its vertical, similar to what you have in a
gyroscope. This is due to the shape of the Earth that is
not perfectly spherical, but flattened at the poles, as
well as to the gravitational forces of the Moon and of
the Sun, which act on the “equatorial bulging” trying to
bring it back to the elliptical plane. Every 25.800
years the precession completes its cycle. So the
position of stars in the celestial sphere slowly changes
in front of an observer, with a motion which is not only
the daily rotation. The precession is not perfectly
regular, because the Moon and the Sun are not always on
the same plane, and each of them moves with respect to
As a result of Hipparchus’s calculations the duration of
a full cycle of the movement of the cosmic structure was
36.000 years. Today it is of common knowledge that it
takes 25.920 years, and that the equinoctial points take
2160 years on overage to cross any constellation. We
know that the Spring equinox point remained in the
constellation of Taurus from 4000 to 2000 B.C.;
afterwards it moved to the Aries. In the first century
A.C. the Spring equinox, moved from Aries to Pisces.
However, by the time it was thought that the Spring
equinoctial point was at 8° from Aries. So, according
to Hipparchus’s theory of precession, at the speed of a
degree every 100 years, it would take other 800 years to
In the celestial sphere we should take into
consideration the celestial equator, which is the
projection of the terrestrial equator out into space;
and the ecliptic plane, or zodiac, which is
tilted with respect to the celestial equator. The two
circles ,well known in ancient time, form an X. As it
very clearly appears today the fact is that, because of
the Earth’s axial tilt (obliquity), the celestial
equator is inclined to the ecliptic plane, which is the
projection of the Earth’s orbit in the celestial sphere.
The equinoctial points (equinox means: “equal night”)
are obtained when the length of the day is equal to that
of the night, and precisely when the sun in its illusory
movement crosses the celestial equator. Thus - for the
northern hemisphere - Spring equinox occurs on March
20th or 21st and Autumn equinox on September 22nd or
myth of Mitra, according to David Ulansey, was
developed in Tarsus, a city which under Pompeus (106 -
48 B.C.) became the capital of Cilicia, a region on the
south - east coast of Asia Minor, and it found its
primary diffusion among the
The pirates of Cilicia
were a power of about 20.000 men. They had more than a
thousand ships, and a strong alliance with Mithridates
“gift of Mitra” VI Eupator , “born from a noble father”,
who had first succeeded in organising them.
The pirates were experienced sailors and had a good
knowledge of the celestial sphere. They affected the
trade traffic in the Mediterranean sea. Their appearance
off the coasts they plundered retained a legendary
appeal: their sails were golden, while the oars were
silver. Several factors led to the creation of the myth,
not last the fact that Mithridates (King of Pontus 120 -
63 B.C.) put the hero Perseus at the origin of his
dynasty. The hero Perseus was Zeus and Danae’s son. The
god turned himself into a golden rain to reach Danae,
imprisoned and segregated by her father, Acrisio, King
of Argo. Once dead, Perseus was transformed in the
corresponding constellation, precisely above the Taurus
one. The constellation of Perseus could perfectly
portray Mitra killing the bull. This is in short what
David Ulansey maintains in his remarkable work.
It was, therefore, this concert of circumstances,
centred in the phenomenon of precession, which was
expressed by Hipparchus. However, it was not
scientifically accepted, but mythically, by a group of
stoics, who applied it to the creation of the myth. The
myth regarded the transition from Taurus to Aries as due
to a turn of the cosmic axis, carried out by a powerful,
although still unknown, god.
According to the myth, Mitra was born from a rock, and
this has a precise meaning. In some mitrei (dark places
without windows, even when they were not placed
underground), the rock is portrayed as surrounded by the
coils of a snake (the cosmic time). The meaning
being that Mitra has a body, shaped inside the womb of the
rock; namely the material terrestrial sphere. In a mitreum (Housestead),
Mitra comes out of a rock egg.
He emerges from the rock already in the figure of a
little boy; naked but wearing a Phrygian cap on his head
(a conical cap with the top pulled forward). He comes
out with raised arms, clutching a dagger sword and a
torch. The dagger sword represents a victorious
execution, he has come to accomplish. The torch is the
sign that he is the bearer of light, but also because he
belongs to the igneous world of stars, which he can make
use of as anyone can make use of a torch.
The child is cold, hungry; although, his body cannot be
identified with the human body. The matter which he is
made of is astral matter, imponderable. The rock has
acted only as a womb, as an egg, and it has given him no
body matter. Mitras’s incarnation - to call it so- is
not to be considered as the embodiment of a full human
nature, soul and body, like the incarnation of the
Verbum, but a body of legendary matter, to whom the
divinity is united as the soul is united to the body.
The imaginative births described in the myths are
functional to an extra matter, just for the god’s body. Instead,Jesus Christ, born from a woman, has taken a
nature as human as ours. In the resurrection Christ’s
body has not changed its material nature, although made
immortal and glorious by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Mitra comes out of the rock, out of the “early mother”
or “virgin matter”. Following the Iranic approach and
putting forward Anahita, the Persian goddess of
fertility, in order to find a “virgin mother” for
Mitra is misleading. Anahita was originally considered,
in the iranian world, like a Godness who expends water
from a source situated in the stars’ region. Ardvi Sura
Anahita means “Wet - Strong - Pure”. The Divinity is a
Godness who generates fertility, with the peculiarity to
have a real unearthly authofertility wich derives from
the particularity to posses the masculine fertilizing
power too; this could have a sense because Ardvi Sura
Anahita is seen as the representation of the water. Ardi
Sura Anahita was also identified with the babilonian
Istar, who was both fertility and lust’s Godness. In the
hellenistic and roman cult sometimes she was identified
with Isis, commonly known as Aphrodite, so nothing but
the babilonian Istar. Anahita was sometimes identified
with Godness Athena as well.
The date of Mitras’s birth was December 25th,
a few days after the winter solstice, which falls on
December 21st or 22nd . The
solstice “still sun” coincides with the shortest day of
the year. From that day the sun resumes its rise which
becomes perceptible three or four days later; hence the
date December 25th. The celebration for the
god “Sol invictus” was introduced on December 25th
by Aurelianus (214 – 275 A..C). Later the same date was
also referred to the god Mitra, similarly called “Sol Invictus”
The Church adopted this date for Christ’s
birth after Constantine’s edict ( promulgated in 313 A.C.
in the names of Constantine the Great, who was then
emperor of the West Empire, and Licinius, emperor of
the Eastern Empire, to put an official end to all
religious persecutions and to proclaim the neutrality of
the Roman Empire towards any worship), thus replacing
the pagan feast of the “Sol Invictus”.
Concerning Christ’s date of birth, there has never been a precise historical tradition. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) suggested two dates : the 20th of May or the 6th of January, specifying that the last one was the mostly accepted according his information. Saint Cyprian (210-258) suggested the date of the 28th of March, instead Saint Hyppolytus (170-235) suggested the 2nd of April. It wasn’t irrelevant to the date suggested, the current idea that the vernal equinox, first on the 25th and then on the 21st of March, was the time of the creation of the world, and in that time conveniently Christ was conceived; therefore counting 9 months, the date of the 25th of December could be reached; it was also influenced by the date of the 6th of January, catched in seasonal meaning. (Cf. "Catholic Encyclopedia", vol VIII, page 1667, Vatican City, 1952; Sansoni publisher, Florence).
But now it is possible to move beyond these considerations, using as a starting point the study carried out by Shemarjahu Talmon, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This scholar, after a careful study of the Qumran documents and the Jubilee calendar (an apocryphal Hebrew calendar dating from the second century B.C., which follows the solar calendar) succeeded in calculating the weekly rota of the twenty-four duty sessions of the priests in the Temple. His conclusions are to be found in the article "The Calendar Reckoning of the Sect from the Judean Desert. Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls", in "Scripta Hierosolymitana", vol. IV, Jerusalem 1958, pages 162-199. According to this research, the "session of Abia (Ab-Jah)", prescribed to take place twice a year, occurred for the first time from the 8th to the 14th of the third calendar month, and for the second time from the 24th to the 30th of the eighth calendar month. In short, during the last ten days of September.
Zacharias belonged to the class of Abia, which was the eighth class (1Chronicles 24,10; Luke 1,5). There were twenty-four "classes" and they took turns, in a fixed order, to serve in the Temple from “Sabbath to Sabbath”, twice a year.
We should now consider the Christian traditions of the Church in Africa where, Saint Augustine tells us, the birth of St John the Baptist has been celebrated on June 24th since the most distant of times. Counting back nine months brings us to the 23rd-25th of September; the Eastern Church commemorates the conception of John the Baptist on these dates. Therefore, the Archangel Gabriel brought the news to Zacharias during the second turn of service in the Temple.
If we consider that St Luke in his Gospel tells us that the Virgin Mary received the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel when Elisabeth had reached the sixth month of her pregnancy (Luke 1,26), which means in the month of March, it follows that the birth of Jesus Christ must have taken place towards the end of December. The date of Christmas day, December 25th, must therefore be seen as not only symbolic
- which would already have some significance
- but as historically accurate, indicating a day of the year very close to which the birth of Jesus Christ must have taken place.
The presence of shepherds at Mitra’s birth is a late
addition to the myth, not consistent with it. In fact
the shepherds make their appearance with the advent of
the era of Aries, and the sheep - domestic animals -
appear after the killing of the bull. In every case,
this presence is well differentiated from the one in
Luke’s Gospel, where the shepherds arrive after Jesus’s
birth, while in the myth they are present at the birth
and even help Mitra come out of the rock.
archaeological remains belonging to the worship of
Mitra, researchers have found the presence of some
characters offering to the god gold, incense, and myrrh
(it is only an assumption). However, these gifts in the
Gospel represent a declaration of faith in the newborn’s
identity: gold to the king, incense to the divinity,
myrrh for the burial of the sacrificial victim.
Therefore, they appear unrelated to the myth, where
Mitra is depicted as the bull slayer , who escapes the
deadly traps that Ocean lays. It must to be said that
these elements appeared in the myth a century after the
appearance of the Gospel. Celso, a philosopher of the
neo-platonic school, (I century A.C.), and a recognized
enemy of Christianity, claimed that Christians had
borrowed their belief from the cult of Mitra, but
that assertion was totally groundless.
Moreover, it is a
modern misconception to see the twelve zodiac signs
appearing in the mitrei as symbols of the 12 twelve
apostles of Christ, and then to assume that Christianity
has copied this element from the Mitraic cult. A
remarkable work by Ruggero Iorio regarding this specific
topic has been released. Iorio is professor of Christian
archaeology at Assisi, and contributes to several
scientific magazines. With regard to the ritual signs,
certainly the cult of Mitra had ablutions, unctions,
and a banquet with bread and water, perhaps wine, but
these are human signs and they are commonly found.
Entering human history Christ could not help taking
these signs; but with the sacraments he gave them the
meaning of effective signs of grace, lived through the
faith in him. Actually, Christ took the sacramental
signs from the Jewish world: ablutions, unctions (of
kings and priests), the unleavened bread during the
leaving of Egypt, the manna of the desert, the bread of
the proposition in the temple, bread and wine offered by
Melchisedech to Abram.
The god Mitra shoots an arrow against a rock and water
springs from it, a sign of the preservation of the earth
from drought. Afterwards, Mitra comes into competition
with the god Helios, with whom he establishes an
alliance and who, eventually is submitted. Then he
catches a bull, symbol of the dark and wild forces, of
the opacity and heaviness of the matter ruled by the
constellation of Taurus. To take the bull into a cave,
that is, in the deep heart of the matter in order to
perform a cosmic turn from the inside,
Mithras meets many obstacles on his path,
caused by the evil god Ahriman (Angra Mainyu in Medo-Persian),
according to the
reconstruction-interpretation of the myth
put forward by Franz Cumont. In the
end Mithras succeeds in killing the bull.
At the end Mithras succeeds
in killing the bull. A dog is present at the
slaughter (the dog in the East is often a symbol of low
and impure reality. The infernal divinity of
Mesopotamia “Lilith” was called “the black bitch” and
moved on a cart pulled by barking dogs. In the Bible
“dog” is a depreciatory epithet (Cf. Dt 23, 17-18; Ps
21, 17 ; Is 56, 9 ; Mt 7, 6 ; Mc 7, 24; Fil 3, 1-3; Ap
22, 10-15). A snake and a scorpion, and a raven, are
present too, the last one being a symbol of death for
its black colour. These animals are under the influence
of their constellations. They try to avoid that the new
course coming from Mitra’s killing of the bull comes
true. Therefore, they try to drain the bull’s fertility
power which Mitra wants to exalt by exerting his own
power. Their obstructing action is not successful and
the good pours out on the Earth. Following Franz Cumont’s reading, from the killed bull all good and
medicinal herbs originate; in particular, wheat
originates from the bull’s bone marrow, while from its
blood comes the vine, from which the wine is produced.
From the semen of the killed bull all domestic animals,
useful to man, come out. The result of this creating
process is the formation of a world sphere, which is
made good for mankind. The fact that the myth takes into
consideration the Spring equinox, which is the moment
of the recovering of vegetation, is closely correlated
to the assets given to man.
Everyone can see the
Tauroctonia (the bull sacrifice) represented in the sky
along the celestial equator when the equinoxes were in
Taurus and Scorpio (Autumn equinoctial constellation).
Successively, the Taurus, the Canis Minor, the Hydra
(snake), the Cup (this enters the Mythraic myth later
in the Rhine-Danube region. Originally there were only
symbols of animals), the Corvus, the Scorpio are found.
Clearly the creators of the myth make the celestial
structure coincide with the tauroctonia. The heavenly
structure has built the tauroctonia. Everything matches,
above the Taurus there is the constellation of Perseus
whose figure fully fits Mithras’s, with his Phrygian
cap, and his victorious attitude over the Taurus.
The victory over the bull, taken inside the cave and the
subsequent formation of good things for mankind is
celebrated by Mitra and Helios with a banquet. Then
Ocean tries to overwhelm Mitra, but he escapes on the
Sun chariot. Mithras does not die at all. Following a
logical course, after his arrival in Heaven, Mitra, at
the top of the cosmos, moves the celestial vault by
rotating the cosmic axis; then, turning himself into a
constellation, makes himself the everlasting winner over
the Taurus. He becomes the “Sol Invictus” that is the
centre which keeps the universe in a position of
benevolence toward mankind.
Any assumptions regarding
Mitra’s death and resurrection, which rely on the
texts in the Pahlavi language (Iranic) of Mazdeism,
should take into account that scholars, such as Joan P.
Couliano, Mircea Eliade’s disciple, have clearly
underlined that the resurrection at the end of the world
presented by the Pahlavi texts, as well as the
escatology, have been influenced by Christianity. This
is true for the dating of the texts, as well as because
these themes do not appear in the ancient texts of the
In the tauroctonia representation two figures
appear: Cautes and Cautopates. The first raises a torch
with his hand, while the second holds it downward: they
are symbols of dawn and sunset. The two have their legs
crossed, indicating the celestial X formed by the
equator and the ecliptic.
of the god
Mithra is the
in the context
to the god
impact of the
The souls descending from Heaven for an unspecified
celestial sin, and taking on a body, find in Mitra the
possibility of not being at the Fate’s and the Moire’s
mercy. He is the saviour who sets them free from the
Fate’s dark and inescapable forces. He, also, allows
them to be purified, first through an initiatory path
consisting of seven degrees and under the protection of
seven divinities (Corox: Raven, protector Mercury;
Nymphus: Bridegroom, protector Venus; Miles: soldier,
protector Mars; Leo: Lion, protector Jupiter; Perses:
Persian, protector the Moon; Heliodromus: courier of the
Sun, protector the Sun; Pater: father, protector Saturn)
and then a path among the planets in heavenly regions in
order to get the state of deification. God will then
give the initiated on the Earth his protection from evil
coming from Fate and the gift of prosperity.
became the protector of sailors who faced the
uncertainties of the seas. The protector of the military
forces, granting them the victory in battles.
The places of worship, mitrei, were always underground
and dark places, symbolizing the cave of the bull
slaughter. The mitreo had always at its centre the
representation of the bull slaughter performed by
Mithras, wearing a starred cloak, symbol of his status
of star ruler
The adept’s initiation included the
immersion in a tub (fossa sanguinis), containing the
blood dripping from a bull ritually sacrificed, in
memory of Mitra’s gesture. Women were not admitted to
the Mitraic initiation.
a banquet of brotherhood for initiates took place, at
bread and water were served.
The presence of wine is not certain, but it would not be
a problem, because it would draw on the customs of
Babylonian and Persian kings, who would abandon
themselves to wine (Cf Ne 2, 1; Est 1, 10; 7, 2) their
Everything was done in secret. The doctrine as well as
the practices of initiation had to remain secret.
Mithras was also the god of solidarity, of compactness,
necessary in the armed forces to achieve victory.
Mithras is an Indo - Iranic word which means: “pact,
agreement, contract, oath”, and also “friendship”.
protector of soldiers, Mitra was represented on a
chariot, with weapons in hand, while fighting.
He was a military god and the Roman legions contributed
to spread his worship.
Roger Beck: “Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in
the Mysterieres of Mithras”, London: Brill,
Franz Cumont: “The Mysteria of Mithra”, New
York: Dover, 1956.
Richard Gordon: “Image and Value in the Greco-Roman
World”, Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.
Mithraic Studies: “Proceedings of the First
Intaernational Congress of Mithraic Studies”,
Manchester U. Press, 1975.
Joan P. Couliano & in collaborazione con H. S. Wiesner
(dell'istituto lingue orientali Università di Chicago):
“Encicolpedia tematica aperta, volume
Religioni”, ed. Jaca Book, Milano, 1992, pag. 374.
Ruggero Iorio: “Mitra. Il mito della forza
invincibile”, ed. Marsilio, Venezia, 1998.
David Ulansey: “I Misteri di Mithra”, ed.
Mediterranee, Roma, 2001.
Vallecchi editore, Vol VI, Firenze, 1978. Vol. IV, 542.
Much important data on Mithraism has come down to us
from Christian authors, together with archaeological
finds (writings and effigies). These authors emphasize
the substantial differences between Christianity and
Mithraism. We have writings by St Jerome (from whom we
learn about the various steps in Mithraic initiation:
see Epistle. CVII, ad Laetam), by St Augustine,
Tertullian, Firmicus Maternus, St Gregory of Nazianzus,