The Myth of Mitra or Mithra



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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 Almighty.
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 (Persian) traditions.  David Ulansey has 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 Hipparcus discover
(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 the other. 
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 leave Aries.
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 23rd.

The 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 pirates.                        
The pirates of Cilicia were a power of about 20.000 men. They had more than a thousand ships, and a strong alliance with Mithrida
tes “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.
In the 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 Avesta.
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.

The cult of the god Mithra is the main fact of Mithraism, but there are other gods beside. In particular, in the context of planetary deities, stands the god Saturn, equated to the god Krosos and represented in the form leontocefala. The strong impact of the god Helios (the Sun).
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.
Mitra 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.

In the Mithraeum a banquet of brotherhood for initiates took place, at which 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 national drink.
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”.
As 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, 1988.
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.

Enciclopedia delle Religioni”, 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, and others.