Mithras or Mica (Michael), a Persian then Roman Sun God

Mithras or Mica (Michael), a Persian then Roman Sun God

Mithras is a Greek form of the name of an Indo-European god, Mithra or Mitra (Old Persian, Mica). Roman writers believed that Mithraism came from Persia and that Mithraic iconography represented Persian mythology. Mithraism was once called the mysteries of the Persians. Christian apologists say Iranian Mithraism was not continuous with Roman Mithraism. There is nothing in this. An invented religion need have no common features with any other but there are many, militating against Roman Mithraism being invented. In Rome, Mithras was a sun god, and, in Persia, he was a god of the morning sun. The Roman Mithras killed the Primæval Bull. A Primæval Bull died in the Persian religion. The Roman Mithras wore a Phrygian cap. Phrygia was in the Persian empire for 200 years. Modern scholars have traced Mithras in Persian, Mittanian and Indian mythology. The Mitanni gave us the first written reference to Mithras in a treaty with the Hittites. These and much more suggest a continuity of belief from India to Rome in a myth of a sun god killing a bull.



Mithras was a Persian saviour, whose cult was the leading rival of Christianity in Rome, and more successful than Christianity in the first four centuries of the Christian era. Mithraism, like Judaism and even more like Christianity is a Zoroastrian heresy. Zoroastrianism is a religious dualism, and so are the Jewish and Christian revisions of it. Both Zoroastrianism and Judaism propose two great contending gods, neither of whom can overcome the other, though an almost successful attempt has been made to paint out the Jewish evil god. The late derivative of Zoroastrianism of Artaxerxes II, Mithraism, and the late derivative of Judaism, Christianity, perfect the analogy, because the good gods of the two original religions now have the support of their sons—Mithras and Jesus.

Zoroaster invented a good god, Ahuramazda, whom he identified as the Creator and unique source of all morality. The antithesis of this good god was the god of pure evil, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the source of all sin and wickedness and of all the suffering of all human beings. This implacable enemy of the good god created his legions of devils to seduce and afflict mankind, and these malignant spirits are simply all the gods of all the peoples on earth who did not welcome the missionaries and armies of the worshippers of Ahuramazda. Those who did not were the earthly armies of the Evil Spirit. It is the duty of all who have been saved by Zoroaster’s revelation to convert or destroy any people of the earth who oppose the soldiers of the Good God. To be saved, humanity must provide his footsoldiers.

In the Christian New Testament, Satan is the “prince of this world.” He had the power to carry off the Son to a mountain top, and bribe him with wealth and dominion that Jesus cannot have expected to have himself. The gospels emphasise the power of Satan and that God had no direct sanction against it! Yehouah’s power is limited by the power of an equally strong Evil god. Christian propaganda is simply to deny that Satan is a god, although a god is, by definition, a superhuman, supernatural being, and Satan’s claim is verified on many pages of the Christians’ holy book. The early Christian, Lactantius (Institutiones, 2:9:13), was honest enough to call Satan an “antitheus”, an anti-god.

The material world is therefore a moral battleground. That is the Zoroastrian doctrine, but everyone had to fight their personal battle against the wicked god, called The Lie (Druj). Zoroaster laid the basis for the jihad, the Holy War, one of the greatest insanities that has afflicted mankind. The religions of love and submission, continuing the tradition, now treat the world as a battle ground in fact, and horrific examples of it have been seen since 2001 AD. The ideas Zoroaster produced, which he doubtless meant for nothing but good, were the best possible for fomenting world wide religious strife. Zoroaster was unwittingly the first prophet of Angra Mainyu, not Ahuramazda! He brought upon mankind the plague of religious zealotry that has characterized religion ever since in the “advanced” nations of the world!

Christians often claim that the Good God ultimately will prevail, so the Evil God is the lesser of the two, but that is also the Zoroastrian belief that Christians always assert is dualist. Dualist religions that have descended from Zoroastrianism, like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all take the division of the world literally. Zoroaster might have made the same mistake, but he unquestionably indicated that he saw the battle on earth for humanity as being a personal moral one, and not one of killing other people considered to be evil.

Zoroaster’s intention has been perverted. His mythology was directed really to the human psyche. The battle was within us because each of us had to chose between Good and Evil in life. If it is known that the Good God will win the war anyway, then all humans can be wicked. Good will prevail. The Zoroastrian scheme puts humanity at the center of the battle, and if enough people do not choose Good, then Evil will prevail. Admittedly, Zoroastrianism implies that Good will prevail, because the Good God has the advantage of Prometheus over Epimetheus—foresight—but the outcome remains our choice, and so far in history we have chosen Evil!


Foundations of Mithraism

The Zoroastrian religion exerted a great attraction on the nations of the vast and multiracial Persian Empire, and many wanted to convert to the the official religion to identify themselves with the dominant culture. The Persians, who formed the ruling aristocracy and enjoyed certain privileges like tax exemptions not extended to others, favored politically a religion that offered a bond of unity between the widely different peoples under their rule, and encouraged loyalty to their empire.

Although the Iranian plateau was highly populated, giving the Persians huge military manpower, few of them were members of the Persian or even the Median ruling elite. So, Persians, like the British in India, admitted natives into administration in the satrapies. Natives who had adopted the religion of their conquerors showing a desire to be assimilated into their culture, and a devotion to the universal god, would have been favoured, perhaps exclusively.

Besides this, though, the Persians had a policy of religious syncretism, almost completely overlooked by historians too ready to accept the kite flown for over a century by Christians and Jews that the Persians were tolerant of all religions. They tolerated the religions of co-operative people, and tried to remodel their religions on lines compatible with Mazdayasnaism. Such converts today are called Juddin. When the Persian empire collapsed to Alexander, these Juddin proved to be Yehudim—Jews.

Persian governors encouraged the practice of a system by which conquered people spontaneously obeyed the law. Zoroaster’s religion had a moral imperative. Ahuramazda commanded conduct of the highest morality, and, in its emphasis on manly courage and speaking the truth, corresponded to the code of honor for which the Persian aristocracy was famous. The ethics of the old Persian nobility, and particularly their insistence on always speaking the truth, greatly impressed the Greeks—so much so that Xenophon made Cyrus the hero of his “faction”[†]Faction. An account purporting to be factual, but largely fiction hung on a factual framework, exemplified by Alex Haley’s book, Roots. The Jewish scriptures and the Christian New Testament are justifiably described as “faction” where they are not entirely mythical!, the Cyropaedia, although he himself had narrowly escaped death at the hand of Tissaphernes, a Persian of noble ancestry but perfidious. Xenophon concluded that no one could trust the Persian aristocracy in his time. Cyropaedia was probably propaganda, so all of it cannot be taken at face value, and the truth and loyalty of Persians will have been directed to others of the same faith, and perhaps the Juddin, but not necessarily to those considered agents of the Evil One.

Zoroastrianism had the same appeal as Christianity later. The promise of equality among human beings by religion has obvious bonding benefits. This aspect of the religion must have appealed strongly to the weak and downtrodden. The Mazdakites[†]Mazdakites Under the early Sassanids, they were a popular sect. Mazdak of Fesa preached vegetarianism, pacifism, and communism, reasoning, like many Christian sects and their secular heresies, that since all men have been created equal, they must be equal in income, social status and perquisites—the caste system meant the upper castes had most of the young women! No one needed any formal sacerdotal religion. No priesthood was needed to represent the people before God. The opposing forces of Nature, good and evil, are mixed together at random, and even God is both good and evil. Mazdakites became radical sectarians in Iran in the late fifth and and early sixth centuries AD. They anticipated modern liberals by advocating taxation as the means of redistributing wealth. King Kavad (Ghobad), desperately short of money, supported them to get allies in the poor ones in his struggles against the Huns and the nobility. He agreed to open government warehouses to the poor, and to close all but three Zoroastrian fire temples. Fearful that Mazdak would abolish private property and marriage, the nobles overthrew Kavad in 496 AD. Kavad regained the kingdom, but now treated the Mazdakites cautiously. The next king Khusrau I (Chosroes, 528 AD) killed Mazdak and viciously suppressed the movement. Remnants survived in remote parts of Iran, and seem to have adopted aspects of Buddhism. “Mazdakite” in Islam became a general expression for heretic, like “Manichee” in Christianity. are an example. Zoroaster’s religion also gave women a measure of equality. Christianity regarded them as inferior and potentially dangerous creatures. Some of the Christian Fathers speak of the “imperfect animal” perhaps implying that women did not have souls.

Ahuramazda is a strictly just, honest, and impartial deity. He has ordained certain rules of righteousness for all mankind. Yehouah is a god who was partial first to a particular tribe then to particularly credulous people. No unprejudiced observer could fail to conclude that Zoroastrianism was not changed for the better when it was remodelled by Jews and then Christians.

Zoroastrianism was a universal religion and sent out missionaries to preach its gospel to all the world, but it became the official religion of the Persian Empire and its fate depended on the fate of Persia. When Alexander the Great overran the Persian Empire and the Greeks colonized Asia from the Mediterranean to the borders of China and from the Caspian Sea to the Indus, the centre of the religion disappeared, and all that remained were the seeds left in various places by the Persian chancellery.

From its status as the official religion of a mighty empire, Zoroastrianism suddenly fell to the abject position of being only the faith of conquered peoples. The crushing defeat of its pious monarchs discredited their religion. Many former adherents abandoned it because they had lost faith in an impotent god, or recognized the cultural superiority of the Greeks, or they saw the advantages of joining the victors, or even because they had been Zoroastrian only out of expediency.

After Alexander’s conquest, the Greeks built Greek cities throughout the lands Alexander had conquered, and Greek became the language of everyone who had any pretensions to culture. Aramaic, the Semitic language which had been the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, became largely the language spoken by the ignorant peasantry of the countryside. Ahuramazda became Horomasdes. The Magi were reduced to the status of swindlers, conjurers, magicians, evangelists, prophets and mediums. They earned a living out of the ignorant and gullible with their tricks. Astrology, which even sensible people accepted as possible, was a staple for which there was always a fair demand.

To the Magi, it must have seemed as though the end of the world had come. Most of the population recognized the superiority of Greek civilization and adopted it, including its language, and its culture. On the fringes of the empire, the caste of priests had to devise new ways of earning a crust. But, many Persians stuck to the core religion in the defeated country long enough to see other sympathetic governments in the Parthians and the Sassanids—Zoroastrianism was eclipsed but was not persecuted. It recovered some prestige.

Elsewhere, Zoroastrianism survived in heresies. Christianity is a Zoroastrian heresy. Many details of Christian doctrine were devised by the Magi in the various Zoroastrian sects—confession of sins, penance and absolution, ceremonial “last suppers” of bread and wine, observance of the twentyfifth of December as a divine birthday, and many others, including even terminology, such as use of the title “Father” to designate a leader of a church, or priest.

Zoroastrianism begins with Ahuramazda, represented only in aniconic form by the sacred fire, as the only god to be worshipped. It evolved to the Mithraic cult in which the “Son” has, for all practical purposes ousted the Father, and the sacred fire has been replaced by murals, sculpture and such rites as a Last Supper.


Persian and Roman Mithraism

Mithras is a Greek form of the name of an Indo-European god, Mithra or Mitra (Old Persian, Mica). Scholars have traced Mithras back into Persian, Mittanian and Indian mythology. The Mitanni gave us the first written reference to Mithras in a treaty with the Hittites. Mithras is celebrated in the Zoroastrian Yashts or hymns of the Sassanian (224-640 AD) Avesta, a book which preserved old oral traditions.

The Mithraism that entered the Roman Empire certainly differed from the Persian religion as practised in Persia during the Achaemenid empire. Christian polemicists deny that the Roman Mithras was the same god as the Persian Mithras. They say:

  • the Roman Mithras cannot be assumed to have originated in Iran, and was only a distant relative of the Persian god, perhaps associated by name only
  • the Roman Mithras was best known for his act of slaying a bull, but not the Iranian Mithras
  • the Roman Mithras was not concerned with contracts
  • Iranians, unlike the Roman Mithraists, did not worship in cave like rooms, have levels of initiation, or pursue secrecy.

Because so many records of the Persian religion have been destroyed by the Greeks and then by the Moslems, it is possible to make some of these assertions. The question is whether the Roman Mithras was a new god invented with the name of the Persian yazata, just to give it some eastern mystery, or was the Roman god essentially the Persian god merely changed somewhat by his long journey from Rhages to Rome. In short, if it was the same Mithras only in that he was dressed up as Iranian just enough to suggest an eastern, Persian, origin, then it was a phony Persian religion. Otherwise, had genuine Mithras worshippers taken the cult with them westwards, changing it as it went, just as paul changed Christianity? Cumont thought so. Christian apologists do not.

Roman Mithraism combined Persian Zoroastrianism, Babylonian astrology, Greek mysteries and perhaps Greek philosophy, but the Persians had themselves been influenced by the Babylonian civilisation in its 200 years of empire, and then a further 300 years almost had passed from the defeat of the Persians and the institution of Alexandrine Hellenization. Thus the opportunity was there for the main differences to be introduced into the original Zoroastrianism of Cyrus to metamorphose it into the Roman variety. An invented religion need have no common features with anything in the east. In fact, many common traits in the characteristics of the god and the religion, West and East militate against the Roman version being invented. The most obvious is that, in Rome, Mithras was a sun god, and, in Persia, he was a god associated with the morning sun.

There is little evidence for a Persian cult of Mithras, suggesting it was never important in itself to the Persian nobility, but by the end of empire it had grown in importance especially at the periphery, notably in Anatolia. The special devotion to Mithras of the later Parthian aristocracy is attested by their use of such theophoric names as Mithridates, but Parthians remained Zoroastrians, and Magi at their courts kept the sacred fires alight.

Roman Mithraism was never called “Mithraism”, but the “mysteries of Mithras” or, significantly, “the mysteries of the Persians”, so, Roman Mithraists considered themselves as “Persians” for the purposes of their religion. They believed that Mithraism came from Persia, that Mithraic iconography represented Persian mythology, and that Zoroaster, the great Persian prophet, had founded the religion. Later, they seemed to identify Mithras with “Sol Dominus Invictus”. Though the Mithras cult is not often discussed in old texts, the writer, Porphyry (234-c 305 AD, On the Cave of the Nymphs) did write about it, albeit sometimes using allusions obscure to the modern mind, saying Zoroaster founded Mithraism in a cave, and so Mithras is shown being born from a rock—Petra Genetrix—as a young man stepping from the rock holding a torch and a sword.

For according to Eubulus, Zoroaster first of all among the mountains bordering Persia, consecrated a natural cave, florid and watered with fountains, in honor of Mithras, the creator and father of all things—a cave in the opinion of Zoroaster bearing a resemblance of the world fabricated by Mithras. But the things contained in the cavern, being disposed by certain intervals, according to symmetry and order, were symbols of the elements and climates of the world.

Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs

Consequently, the places where Mithras was worshipped were caves, or mock caves. Note also here that Mithras is “the creator and father of all things”, “the fabricator of the world”. Porphyry gives Mithras the role that Ahuramazda had in Zoroastrianism.

At the end of the nineteenth century Franz Cumont, a Belgian historian of religion, published in French a two volume work on the Mithraic mysteries taking the origins of the cult as Persian.

Cumont remains the classic work on the subject but in the latter third of the twentieth century has been challenged by Christian skeptics. One apologist tells us that Cumont was wrong about ancient Iranian Mithraism being continuous with Roman Mithraism. Only the name of the god, some terminology, and astrological lore were common. The challenge is based on the lack of hard evidence, much of which Christians themselves destroyed, so as usual with Christian obfuscation, there is good reason to stick with the authoritative foundation of Cumont’s earlier work until Christians produce definitive evidence to the contrary. rather than merely new assertions that suit their beliefs or prejudices better than more rational ideas. There is nothing in most of these challenges.

Zoroaster had tried to suppress Mithras worship, aiming to restrict polytheism and promote monotheism, so had apparently omitted the old Iranian gods, including Mithras, from the Gathas in favour of the supremacy of Ahuramazda. But Mithras would not be suppressed because he was too popular. So, in the original Persian pantheon, Mithras was a retained as a yazata (angel), lower than Ahuramazda (later Ormuzd), the Supreme Being, with whom he was associated, but higher than the Sun. Eventually Strabo would write:

[The Persians] honor the Sun, whom they call Mithras, and the Moon and Aphrodite, and Fire and Earth, and Winds and Water.

Mithras could not originally have been the sun itself because when the sun went at night behind the world mountain, Hara, Mithras did not go with it, but continued his duty as mediator through the hours of darkness. In the original tradition, it will have been Varuna, god of the heavens, who went with the sun at night into the underworld.

Plutarch in On Isis and Osiris digresses to describe dualism in Zoroastrianism, noting that Mithras was “in the middle” (meson) between the good Horomazes and the evil Areimanius (Ahriman, originally Angra Mainyu), “and this is why the Persians call Mithras the Mediator”. It suggests the Magi saw a trinity of Mithras, Ahuramazda and Ahriman. Ahuramazda and Ahriman seemed to be mirror images of some complex power—perhaps Zurvan, Time—and Mithras was the link. Mithras only took the side of Ahuramazda at the earthly level, otherwise he was neutral between the two principles. But at the earthly, human level, Mithras, as mediator, mitigated the otherwise absolute evil of the Demiurge, Ahriman, who aimed to spoil the good creation of Ahuramazda in this level of the cosmos, and whose purpose therefore was to lead men against the good spirit, Ahuramazda.

Mithras became one of the seven aspects of Ahuramazda, apparently his visible face, the god Himself being invisible and too holy to be represented (aniconic), long before His derivatives, Yehouah and Allah. This was so as not to particularize the universal God, lest people got attached to their own depiction of Him, thereby reintroducing idolatry and then polytheism. Though the Jewish scriptures say no human can look upon God and live, God would appear in various forms to living people who did not die as a consequence, often, in Judaism, as the angel of the Lord, or the archangel Michael leading the hosts of heaven, and in Christianity, as Christ. People then wanted their gods capable of being seen, at least sometimes. That too is what seemed to happen in Zoroastrianism. Later, Mithras became more important than Ahuramazda, perhaps because of his role as mediator between men and those on the divine level, and so was the human face of God.

The morning sunlight, Mithras, was the visible face of the invisible God of the hosts of the heavens, Ahuramazda, and thus was Ahuramazda! Mithras became omniscient, the god of light, the Heavenly Light, a spiritual Sun, the enemy of darkness and therefore of evil and hence the god of battles and of military victory. Mithras was the god of contracts and oaths, he embodied the seven divine spirits of goodness (showing that he had become or always was Ahuramazda), he protected the righteous in this world and helped them into the next. He sent rain from Heaven and light from the sun and helped mankind by slaying the Primæval Bull, the first sacrifice, fertilising the earth. He was the Logos (the Word), meaning the order of the universe, the Persian, Arta.

Maybe the worship of Mithras was often not mentioned in the earlier times because the god whom Mithras represented in Rome was other than Mithras in Persia—Ahuramazda maybe![†]Identity of Mithras and Ahuramazda. F M Kotwal and J W Boyd have noted that Parsi practice and Irani practice in consecrating the annual offering to Mithras differ. The Irani service begins with praise of Mithras, and there is no accompanying praise of Ahuramazda, but the Parsi service begins with praise of Ahuramazda followed by the praise of Mithras. The difference is traced back 400 years but might be much older. The authors think it shows that the Parsis have inserted the praise of Ahuramazda to reaffirm his superiority over Mithras, but it was not originally thus, the Iranis retaining the original simpler formula devoted only to Mithras. It could suggest that Mithras was Ahuramazda, and so the addition of praise specifically of the latter is superfluous.. It was not what Zoroaster intended, but perhaps what happened, especially with the collapse of Persia, the fragmentation of the Persian religion, and the dispersal of the Mages. We have to remember that most Zoroastrian writings were destroyed by Alexander, so the plenum of Zoroastrian belief will never be known for sure. We have to try to reconstruct it from what remains.

That the rites were “mysterious” or “secret” meant the cult was interpreted as a secret religion—a mystery religion—but that is an error, in origin at least. The Persians would not admit any strangers into their sacred services because they were unclean, not because they were secret per se. Being an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, Mithraism will have had the same custom, a custom also held by the Jews, another offshoot of Zoroastrianism. In the Jewish temple, the Court of the Gentiles was as far as gentiles were allowed to go. The need for cleanliness will have transmuted into the need for initiation, the initiate having been ritually cleansed in some way, and perhaps all religions, around the time the Roman empire started, will have required some sort of initiation.

It is impossible not to identify the Roman and the Persian gods called Mithras. Christians want us to believe that Pagans worshipped two quite different gods with the same name and an identifiable point of contact. It is too absurd and a sign of desperation that such views are submitted for consideration. The Mithras of the Roman religion had certainly changed in his slow journey from Susa, but it is quite ignorant and stupid to pretend that the Roman Mithras did not begin in Persia and retained many of the qualities of the Persian god. And the lack of remains in the east is easily explained, as Christians ought to realise. It is that Christianity first established itself and grew in these very regions, detracting from the growth of Mithraism, absorbing it and erasing it. Mithraism was founded on and retained albeit with Hellenistic trappings to disguise it, Persian Zoroastrianism.

An attraction for the Romans of Oriental religions was that they had a long history and their gods a reputation for wisdom. This was true of Mithraism. Mithras was a redeemer but also offered a role model as an epitome of morality. Mithraism began to spread because it appealed to to the merchant classes who valued its demand for high moral standards and therefore honesty, to the lowly and humble such as slaves poor freedmen, and particularly to the military. Merchants adopted it because of the high ethics the god demanded over contracts, a concern the Christians claim Roman Mithras did not have! Its failing might have been that women were excluded—adherents were all male and were sworn to secrecy. Modern Freemasonry has strong elements of Mithraism in its organisation.

The Evidence of Mithraism

The evidence for Mithraism is mostly archaeological—the remains of mithraic temples, monumental inscriptions, the iconography of the god and sculptures, sculpted reliefs, wall paintings and mosaics. From every known such reference and such documents as existed, Cumont claimed that Mithras was Persian Mithra.

If Mithras had Iranian roots then the Roman cult of Mithraism must have begun in the east of the Roman empire. Roman soldiers met worshippers of the god, Mithras, in the provinces to the east of the empire, adjacent to Persia, and the Greek biographer, Plutarch (46-127 AD), confirms that Mithraism entered the Empire from Persia when Pompey’s Roman soldiers were challenging Cilician pirates[†]Pirates. Just as today “terrorists” are those who fight to defend their own country and beliefs against the dominant or imperial force, in those days “pirates” and “robbers” were descriptions of those resisting Roman occupation and rule. These pirates were supporters of the Mithridatid kings of Anatolia and Seleucid kings of Syria, who resisted Roman rule so successfully that even noblemen were joining them (“men who were powerful by wealth and of distinguished birth, and who claimed superior education, began to embark on board piratical vessels”. Plutarch). Note the name, Mithridates—a Persian theophoric invocation of the law of Mithras! So, the description “pirates” does not at all imply they were louts and ruffians.. Cilicia was later, according to the bible, the home in Asia Minor of Paul the apostle.

[These pirates] also performed strange rites, those of Olympus, and celebrated certain mysterious rites of perfection, among which were those of Mithras, and they are continued to the present time, having been first introduced by them.

Plutarch, Life of Pompey, Ed A Stewart and G Long

Three hundred years’ later, Maurus Servius Honoratus, commenting on Virgil, added that Pompey settled some of the pirates in Calabria in Italy.

Contrary to the simple meaning of written words, C M Daniels (1975), discussing the role in this of the Roman army, wrote that Plutarch “carefully omits making the point that the cult was introduced into Italy at that time, or by the pirates”. Nothing is carefully omitted here at all. The point is made in passing, to connect an unfamiliar item of history with what Plutarch’s readers would recognize as familiar in their own day and age, namely the growing popularity of the worship of Mithras.

Daniels added that there was no evidence, archaeological or literary, then or since, for the arrival of Mithraism in the West at that time. This is analogous to the creationist complaint about the absence of so called transition fossils. There are no transition fossils of the beginnings of Mithraism! Why should a novel religious fad practiced by a few eccentrics and foreigners instantly leave any noticeable trace in the archaeology? We are unlikely to find any traces of it until it became reasonably popular.

Nor does it matter a whit whether pirates actually took the rites to Italy, or anywhere else. The point is that the west did become familiar with the rites of Mithras, and we have written testimony that it was by contact with eastern enemies of Rome described as “pirates”. These pirates did not have to import the religion to the west themselves any more than native American Indians in person had to introduce tobacco smoking to England. But, once these kingdoms in Anatolia, subdued by Pompey and his generals, had been absorbed into the empire as its eastern provinces, the pirates were citizens of Rome, as free as Paul of Tarsus to travel within the empire!

Certainly, from the middle of the first century BC, soldiers, eastern merchants—called “Syrians”, and slaves, spread these mysteries, impressed by the god’s high precepts. Soldiers and merchants were highly mobile, and slaves were often sold on to new masters and were obliged to move with their new owners, so all could rapidly spread the cult.

Christians, desperate to make Mithraism dependent on Christianity, insist that it only started in the second half of the first century AD, despite Plutarch’s plain statement that it began a century earlier. Since he lived at this very time (46-120 AD), he can hardly have thought a new Roman fad was 100 years old. He knew it was that old and, by his own time, established. Indeed, it is in the second half of the first century AD that the archaeological evidence begins to get more common, showing that the religion was getting popular.

Dio Cassius relates that Tiridates, the dependent king of Armenia, visited Nero at Rome in 63 AD to be crowned, and to worship Nero as Mithras. Pliny (Natural History) adds that Tiridates initiated Nero into “magical feasts”. Here Pliny clearly means “magical” to mean “Magian”. We are in the period when the word was degenerating into meaning trickery and conjuring, but the Magi brought by Tiridates for the ritual will not have been goëtae, but honorable priests of the Zoroastrian religion. It sounds as though the sacred banquet of Mithras and the sun is meant. Nero might have enjoyed the limelight, but the occasion must have meant something to the people for them to have a strong enough interest in it to make the spectacle meaningful. It implies they had some familiarity with the king’s Mithraitic beliefs and practices. Possibly this occasion was when Mithraism was granted Imperial approval, in practice, if not formally.

Statius (Thebaid 1) about 80 AD mentions Mithras, writing, “Mithras twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave”, sounding like a partial description of the tauroctony, the sacred act in which Mithras individually sacrifices a bull. It is the earliest extant datable text seeming to mention the rites of Mithras.

Possibly even earlier, and certainly farther east, are five terracotta plaques from Kerch in the Crimea, described by Roger Beck and dated between c 60 BC and c 10 AD by Russian archaeologists. As they show a man killing a bull, they may be the earliest tauroctonies. The figure doing the killing, is more like Attis than the familiar later depictions of Mithras, who wears the trousers typical of Persian dress (from their being nomadic horsemen originally). Here, though, his genitals are exposed, possibly emphasizing the suspected fertility connexions of the bull sacrifice, or a syncretism with the god Attis in Anatolia, the original home of Attis:

He is grasping one of the bull’s horns with his left hand, and wrenching back its head. The right arm is raised to deliver the death blow. So far, this god must be Mithras. But in sharp contrast with the usual representations, he is dressed in a jacket like garment, fastened at the chest with a brooch, which leaves his genitals exposed—the iconography typical of Attis.

M Clauss

An Imperial freedman named T Flavius Hyginus dedicated a plinth in Rome sometime between 80-100 AD to Sol Invictus Mithras. The name “Flavius” signifies that he had been freed by a Flavian emperor. The inscription even mentions the rank of “Father” as Lollius Rufus, so already there is an indication of the degrees of membership known later, in which the Father was the top rank.

A broken plinth from Moesia Inferior is unquestionably Mithratic, showing Cautes and Cautopates, the two torchbearers who are plainly aspects of Mithras himself[†]Cautes and Cautopates. These names are not Latin, but seem to be Iranian, suggesting their origin. . It is dated 100 AD. Perhaps a little later but before 114 AD, C Sacidius Barbarus, a centurion of XV Apollinaris, recorded that Roman soldiers in the military garrison at Carnuntum on a bank of the Danube in Upper Pannonia (modern Hungary) were worshipping Mithras. It is now the earliest archaeological evidence outside Rome for such worship by Romans. The legion, XV Apollinaris, had been ordered East in 63 AD to fight against the Parthians and then the Jews, who revolted from 66-70 AD. In about 71 or 72 AD, on their return, the legionaries were making Mithraic dedications.

Much more evidence of the worship of Mithras comes from the western empire, particularly Rome itself and its port, Ostia, and the military forts on the Danube and Rhine. Mithraism was also popular among the legionaries in North Africa and those in the forts of Hadrian’s wall. Rome had some 700 mithraea and Ostia had some more, but not many have survived. Besides grottos, 400 other traces of Mithras have been found in Rome and Ostia. Mithraism in Rome and Ostia appealed to the same people as elsewhere and existed in the area of Rome as early as the late first century AD. About twenty five inscriptions to Mithras have been found in Spain, and several statues of him were found at Merida, perhaps a cult centre in the west.

By the mid second century, the Christian writer Justin Martyr was claiming that the Devil was imitating the Christian communion rite in the rites of Mithraism:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them, that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body”. And that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood”, and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

Justin Martyr, First Apology 66

So, in the first century of this era, archaeology suggests that Mithras worship began to take off in popularity. Even so physical remains of it only appear commonly after 150 AD. Marquita Volken says the cult began using private rooms in insulae, tenement buildings, like the Casa di Diana at Ostia, or temporary quarters in large buildings, such as baths or store rooms, so could not leave recoverable remains. Christianity was apparently the same. What we know of the growth Mithraism Mithraism ought to be compared with what we know of the growth of Christianity.

We are led to believe from documents like those of the New Testament that Christianity was already established in Rome when Paul arrived around 60 AD. Yet recognisably Christian artefacts do not begin to appear until around 180 AD, and churches much later still. The subsequent success of Christianity and its ruthless suppression of its rivals, once it was able to do it, meant that we have no certain Mithraitic documents at all, let alone from the early period. If the situation were the reverse, we had no written evidence of Christianity and we had to make any deductions from archaeological evidence alone, then we would have to conclude that Christianity began in the second century AD, and only became popular in the fourth. Indeed most Christian archaeology comes after 250 AD, and only becomes common, as one would expect, after Constantine.

Roger Beck guesses there were over a million Mithraists by the Severan period, say 240 AD, 300 years after it was introduced to the Roman world. That is a modest rate of increase of 5 percent per annum, a doubling of membership about every fifteen years, assuming a steady rate, though it probably began growing quickly, then tailed off as the membership reached a saturation point. Still, there were perhaps thousands of Mithraic temples in the Roman empire, mainly in Rome itself but, as Mithraism appealed to soldiers, also in garrisons on the frontiers of the Empire.

The rites of Mithras was the last of the Eastern Mystery cults besides Christianity to reach the West and one of the most vigorous in its rate of growth, but was not officially recognized in the Empire until the end of the second century AD. It reached the height of its popularity in the third century—though it never became a state religion of Rome, unless Aurelian’s Unconquered Sun was to all intents and purposes Mithras.

Persian and Roman Mithraism: The Missing Link

A problem has been that Mithraic belief was not regulated by any central authority, and, certainly early on, seems not to have been consistent from place to place, so archaeological relics of it might not be instantly recognizable. Only three Mithraea and a few Mithraic objects have been found in Syria and Palestine, but the iconography is very variable. Since Mithraism was an eastern cult, it seems paradoxical that it was stronger in the west than in Anatolia and Syria:

While little can be proved from silence, it seems that the relative lack of archaeological evidence from Roman Syria would argue against the traditional [Cumont’s] theories for the origins of Mithraism.

Uncovering Ancient Stones, Lewis M Hopfe (ed)

It is considered evidence that Cumont was wrong. To pass from Iran to the west, Mithraism ought to have been strong at some intermediate stage in Syria, but was not, so the hypothesis is wrong. The reason is, at least partly, because the other religious legacies of Persia, Judaism then Christianity, were stronger in the Levant, the old Persian satrapy of Abarnahara which included the temple state of Yehud. Judaism was founded by Persians as the “good” religion of submissive people, not directly related with the religion of the Persian aristocracy, and so survived more easily, especially at the fringes. Mithraism came more directly from the religion of the ruling Persians, and survived less easily the demise of the Persian nobility outside of the Persian core lands.

The Persian empire was not lacking in Mithraic monuments. If there are few obvious instances of the Roman cult in Asia Minor whence it supposedly emerged, destruction of Mithraic relics by the fanatics of the newer religions is another factor. In Europe, excavations have revealed a mithraeum under many of the earliest church buildings. In the east, churches or mosques were sometimes similarly built on the site of temples to Mithras, or Persian divinities at any rate, as at Etchmiadzin, under the Juma Mosque in Esfahan, and under other Juma Mosques in Iran.

But other eastern mithraea were first converted to Sassanian fire temples, still called after Mithras (mihr) “dare-e Mehr”, and then into mosques, even so continuing to be called a “House of Communion”. The “fire temple” in Bishapur was a mithraeum. It seemed unlikely that a fire temple would have been built underground, but the discovery of a fragment with a figure of Mithras, reproduced by Professor Ghirshman, confirms its Mithraic origin. Continued usage of old mithraea effected a more thorough destruction of any relics than knocking down and building over, because all extraneous objects and symbols were removed, leaving nothing of the old to be left to be found, even when the building was eventually demolished and rebuilt.

The variation of the style and content of the Syrian relics rather supports the idea that the cult developed in the east. The relics are variable precisely because the people there, once they were devoid of a centralized Persian chancellery, had to improvise. Subsequent transfer into the empire led to a degree of standardization. Anatolia was doubtless similar. More Persians had settled in Anatolia than Syria, and so the legacy of Persia there was stronger, albeit like Syria subject to intense Hellenization and rivalry from Judaism. After his conquest, Alexander minted coins bearing the image of Zeus enthroned modeled on the coins of Mazaeus at Tarsus. Some Graeco-Bactrian coins show a similar enthroned god, but with solar rays around his head or wearing a tiara surmounted with rays. A D H Bivar thought it could only be Mithras.

In Hellenized places, Mithras was sometimes shown as Zeus. Mary Boyce thinks Greeks could not imagine an active and popular supernatural being like Mithras as being merely an angel, a servant of the high god. Perhaps Hellenized Iranians too! One remarkable instance in Anatolia is a spectacular monument, which has partly survived the depredations of two millennia, on the high mountain which the Turks call Nemrud Dag, close to the upper course of the Euphrates and about 365 miles east-southeast of Ankara. There, such a Mithras, identified with the Greek Sun god Helios/Apollo—with a Phrygian cap and a nimbus about his head—appears among the colossal statues erected by King Antiochus I of Commagene, a buffer kingdom, and then Roman province, of Anatolia, which he ruled from 69-38 BC.

Antiochus I, a minor king, ruled his kingdom as a Roman puppet, and seems to have been an Hellenized Iranian. He claimed both Alexander and Darius as his ancestors, and combined Greek Olympian and Persian worship in the imagery of his syncretic royal cult, just as Plutarch suggested. He was of generally Greek culture, but he chose to associate himself with the Zoroastrian religion, perhaps because his subjects still mostly held to it. He erected, on both sides of an artificial hill added to the summit of the mountain, the colossal statues of his gods, which could pass as Greek but wear Oriental robes and Persian head dresses.

One of the two principal gods majestically looking out over a valley is a fusion of Zeus and Oromasdes carrying thunderbolts. The second is a fusion of Apollo, Helios, and Mithras also carrying thunderbolts like Zeus/Oromasdes. The Greeks were willing to believe that Zeus was also Oromasdes in inner Asia, just as he was Amun in Egypt, and it was only reasonable that he would seem different to a different people. But, though exalted at Commagene, Mithras was typically below Zeus/Oromasdes in the pantheon. Commagene is adjacent to Cilicia, and Antiochus ruled just about the time when Pompey was trying to squash the Cilician pirates.

The shrine, despite the Greek appearance given it by Antiochus, is late Zoroastrian and even included a massive altar on which the sacred flame could be kept burning. Commagene was a buffer between the Roman Empire and the aggressive Parthian Empire. The great Parthian king, Mithridates VI Eupator had waged a series of bloody wars with the Romans from 88 to 66, when he was defeated decisively by Pompey. He fled to his overseas colonies in the Crimea, where he committed suicide. Parthian power remained formidable, as Crassus was to learn at Carrhae. Mithradates’s theophoric name denotes him as a votary of Mithras.

To the southeast of Nemrud Dag may still be seen a large cave in the side of a mountain. A wide terrace was built up in front of it, and the entrance made an arch in walls covered with once lavish ornaments, sculptured reliefs and inscriptions, which have long since disappeared. From the floor of the cave, engineers sank a tunnel, at an angle of 45° downward, into the mountain for 520 feet and enlarged it to a large room at the bottom. It is a shrine built and excavated probably by Antiochus for an annual commemoration of the miraculous birth and epiphany of the Son of God, Mithras, born in a cave, saluted by choirs of rejoicing angels, and first adored by shepherds on the twenty-fifth of December, after the Winter Solstice. Mithras, however, was born an adult.

In the room at the bottom, Antiochus will have performed religious rites to renew his own participation in divinity. He will have put on garments to impersonate Mithras emerged at the dramatic moment of sunrise, on the terrace as the “theos epiphanes”, suggesting to the awaiting worshippers that he was an incarnation of Mithras, or at least his divinely-appointed vice-regent on earth.

Antiochus was also portrayed in the characteristic pose of Zoroastrian kings, face to face with his god. He and Mithras both in Persian trousers and tunic, stand facing each other and joining their hands, as if sealing a covenant with a handshake. Antiochus is distinguished by his crown, Mithras by the rays of the sun which appear behind his Phrygian cap. Antiochus showed himself shaking hands with Ahuramazda, who remains seated on his throne, since the supreme god was still entitled to that dignity.

This syncretic religion of Antiochus of Commagene looks suspiciously like the “missing link” that some claim archaeology has never found where it is most expected. To demand a missing link is a delightful tactic for naysayers because every missing link discovered throws up the need to discover two more! Admittedly nothing can be unequivocally labeled as the immediate ancestor of the Roman Mithras in Anatolia but the Commagene cult must be close. Moreover, other curious monuments and artifacts from modern day Turkey, and nearby Crimea, across the Black Sea—like the five terracotta pots noted above—support the notion that here was a Graeco-Iranian melting pot where Persian, Greek and Jewish ideas amalgamated over several centuries to produce new syntheses including Mithraism, Hellenized Judaism, and Gnosis.

Mithraism may have survived here as the religion of Iranian nobility reduced to banditry, a religion of small cells of believers resisting the demise of Persian rule. Yet it is unlikely to have been carried into Rome by Anatolian bandits. Roman soldiers and merchants took up the religion. In the west, it retained the custom of the outlaws of meeting only in small, independent, intimate cells, where the sacred repast was taken by just a few, but they obeyed the Roman law that meetings of colleges should not be clandestine[†]Clandestine. Meetings that were private because they were open only to novitiates and initiates were not secret in the sense of being clandestine. Everyone knew they were being held, when and where, but admission was restricted to members. Secret meetings, held clandestinely, were illegal, they were not advertised and no one knew about them except the members of the cells., and so they were never persecuted for acting illegally.

A Persian link with Roman Mithraism cannot be denied in that the fifth level of the seven levels of fraternity was called Persian. That initiates were aspiring to a rank of “Persian” implies that Mithraism was a non-Persian or post-Persian religion. Though Persia was Rome’s most fearsome enemy in the east, there was no suggestion that Romans considered Mithraists as traitors, even though, Roger Beck (Encyclopaedia Iranica) tells us, Roman worshippers of Mithras aspired to be Persians for cult purposes. For Romans, “Persian” was a cultic not an ethnic designation but showed the religion did not come directly from the Persians, but from a peripheral people, aspiring to the honor of being a Persian. It suggests an origin in the fringes of the Persian empire, where colonised people aspired to be ranked with the rulers, rather as Anglo-Indians did in the days of the British Raj. The Persian nobility were identified exactly with their religion. Those who followed the Persian religion were Persians, just as people who followed the Jewish religion were Jews.

Professor Moghdam thinks much of the eastern evidence has not been recognized because it was specifically buried under churches and mosques or left as ruins feared by Arabs as places of Jinns. He says the word “khirbah”, which has understandably been associated with “ruins” by the Arabs, as in “khirbit” Qumran, the most famous one of them known in the west, is really from the Persian “khorabe”, a “sun-dome”, “abe” being a dome. Dozy translated Arabic “khirba” as a “court”. A sun-dome is a place of worship and a court of Mithras. The “khirbahs” scattered all over Arabia and Syria are, Moghdam believes, mithraeums. Certainly Mithraic figures and statuettes have been found in some of them. In the kitab al-Aghani is narrated:

In Sistan there was a man called Burzen, an ascetic, whose father had been impaled in his Khiraba.

Moghdam comments, he could not have been impaled in his “ruins” but could have been in his “khorabe” or mithraeum. Evidently, there were “khorabes” as far as Sistan. The writings of the sectarians of Khirbit Qumran are markedly dualistic in tone, suggesting a long association with Persian teaching. The common noun in Armenia for temple, Mehean, means mithraeum. The ruins of the Mehean in Garni are impressive, having been built by the kings of Armenia, who were at that time Mithraists not Christians. A temple at Kangavar was dedicated to Anahita, and Mithraic cathedrals are known that were made into fire temples by the Sassanians.


Myth and the Tauroctony

Roman Mithras, as his mightiest and most beneficent deed, sacrifices a bull, but the truth is no one knows of a certain bull slaying by the Iranian Mithras because any direct evidence of it has gone. Assertions do not dispose of arguments, though Christians, used to settling all disputes by reference to the holy book, have got into the habit of believing they do. In Zoroastrian legend, there is no denying that an important bull was slain—the Primæval Bull, effectively the source of living things! The bull is slain, although Mithras is not the killer.

Ahriman killed the Primæval Bull of creation, but the outcome was paradoxically good—rather as the plot of Satan to kill the son of God on the cross, in some versions of the Christian myth, was foiled in it being precisely God’s purpose. The killing of the bull was unintentionally the first sacrifice. The dying bull’s sperm was carried to the moon, purified and generated all domestic animals. That the Evil Spirit should have done good, even involuntarily, must have seemed odd, and the myth therefore might have evolved with Mithraic theology. Christians ought to know about changing theology, but what they treasure in their own fantasies, they will not permit in other people’s. So, a variant of the myth was that the first man was tricked by Angra Mainyu into killing the Primæval Bull.

Persians were reluctant to make pictures of their gods, just like the Moslems today, and there is no Persian iconography of the god slaying the bull like that found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Later, as the Time of Long Dominion approached its end, the prophesied Saoshyant, the Persian saviour, would repeat the deed of sacrificing a bull and make from its fat and the sacred drink haoma, a potent to give immortality. It seems Mithras was, or, at the margins of Zoroastrianism perhaps, was confused with, the Saoshyant, a reincarnation of Zoroaster, whence the Roman adaptation. Later, this form in the east died or was persecuted as heretical. Having lost the proper Zoroastrian corpus to Alexander’s unusual vandalism at Persepolis, we cannot be sure this was not an original part of the mythos.

Iranian and Indian myths had the same roots. Indians were the Aryan brothers of the Persians. So, consider the following. M J Vermaseren relates an Indian myth of Soma (Avestan haoma), a polymorphic god, one of whose forms is that of a bull whose semen is the rain which fertilizes the earth. He is therefore the life giver. Soma was murdered by the gods including Mithras. The Roman evidence tells us that the Saviour Mithras killed the Primæval Bull. The Roman Mithras wore a Phrygian cap. Phrygia had been part of the Persian empire for 200 years and was in the region—Anatolia—from which the Mithraic religion was reported by contemporaries to have emerged—Cilicia adjacent to Commagene. He also wore a short cape of the Greek style and Persian trousers. The Ionian Greeks were also ruled by the Persians for a long time, served in the Persian military and merchant service, and were neighbours of the Phrygians. These related strands of history and mythology are sufficient to suggest a continuity of belief from India to Rome expressed in a myth of the god killing a bull.

Apologists will protest that such an interpolation is contrary to the evidence, but that is merely to suit themselves. These connexions are evidence, and when direct evidence has been destroyed whether deliberately or by accident, we are entitled to make inferences—hypotheses—from what remains. It is impossible to be sure it is absolutely right, but it is pure stupidity not to use the evidence we have, and to try to account for isolated historical facts by postulating reasonable hypotheses to bring them together. More evidence might refute an hypothesis, and it will have to be improved or abandoned for a better one, but that is how science works. We do not restrict ourselves solely to facts on the grounds that a hypotheis might be wrong. Christians do not want to make reasonable inferences because it often challenges Christianity as an exclusive revelation. So they suddenly become purists in regard to evidence. They want no evidence that is not foolproof to be admitted. Yet their own beliefs are based on ancient hearsay evidence with no sound foundation. They are hypocrites.

The story of Mithras begins with the Ahriman oppressing mankind. Mithras is incarnated from a rock in a cave on 25—December, the old date of the midwinter solstice. He enters the world, observed by lowly shepherds, on the darkest day of the year—he is the Light of the World. During his incarnation he helps mankind like Orpheus—a god with probably the same Persian roots [†]Orpheus. Though Orpheus is not mentioned in Homer, in a fragment of Ibycus, a poet of the sixth century BC, the period when Cyrus the Persian conquered the world, and when Zoroastrians think their prophet lived, spoke of “Orpheus famous of name”, the earliest reference to Orpheus we have. Much later Pausanias knew of an Egyptian who thought Orpheus was a “magician”, that is, a Magian, implying that Orpheus sprang from Persian tradition. Indeed, rather like Zurvan being the father of Ahuramazda and Ahriman, the Orphics believed Chronos procreated Aither and Chaos, where these are opposites, one lucent and good, the other opaque and bad. From a divine egg in the Aither sprang the hermaphroditic god, Phanes, who actually then created the material world, gods and humans. Thus Aither equates with Ahuramazda and Chaos with Ahriman. The emergence of Phanes from the cosmic egg is like Mithras emerging from a rock standing for the dome of the heavens. Phanes also means shining or bright, Persian ahura becomes oro or or in Greek, so Orpheus could be a corruption of a Greek version of Ahuramazda. Mithraism might have been a Roman syncretism of two versions of the same story separated by half a millennium—Orphism and Mithraism.—and carries out miracles like Jesus. In an abstract way, he dies for the good of mankind. He kills the sacred bull, the equinoctial sun which revivifies and fertilises the earth, but the bull is an aspect of himself:

Mithra, as well as the Bull, is the Demiurgus and lord of generation…

Porphyry, Nymphs

They are two aspects of the sun, or the heavens represented by the path of the sun through the summer constellations—the summer zodiac. Mithras is the god of the summer sun. So he kills an aspect of himself, just as God, the Father, kills himself by offering himself as a victim in his aspect as God the Son. As an annual sun god he is resurrected. His mission done he holds a last supper with his disciples and returns to Heaven, the level beyond the cosmos, in the solar chariot. He will be victorious over evil at the last battle and will sit in judgement on mankind, when he will lead the Chosen Ones over a river of fire to immortality.

The scholars are agreed, from a message scratched in a second century Mithraeum, that Mithras promised his worshippers immortality:

And us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.

The source of this precedes Christianity because the parent of Mithraism was Zoroastrianism in which the good creation would be restored at the end of time in an eternal existence. So, those who sought to be on the side of good, were promised eternal life after death. Again, the precious sensibilities of Christians who think they are unique have to be preserved. Here they even will admit that religions have points in common, to try to minimize the importance of another religion offering what the Christians want to keep for themselves. By doing so, they automatically admit that Christianity is neither unique nor even compellingly different from other religions in the milieu from which it sprang—the Roman empire.

Christians are quite desperate to prove that Mithras was not a dying and rising god. They say, even granting that the suffering god myth is essential to mystery religions, Mithras can hardly be included because he is the only god who did not suffer. It is true that the god in his human form did not die as the others did, but he died in the form of the bull which represented himself. Christians claim this is all a misapprehension based on Cumont’s original interpretation which is—they say—plagued with problems. So today’s Mithraic scholars are very sceptical of attempts to understand the Roman Mithras in the light of the Iranian one. It would be nice to know how many of these Mithraic sceptics are Christians. We can guess most, and we can thank earlier Christians for the lack of evidence, but sun gods often slay bulls which represent themselves as the sun rising in the constellation of Taurus. The idea has a firm and ancient basis.

Apologists will say that solar myths in which other gods of no relation to Mithras are depicted as bulls, and sacrifices of bulls in various places, are of no relevance to the issue. But that is utterly absurd. The killing of the bull is so closely linked with solar worship that it can be taken as a signal of it. Mithras was a solar god. Why are Christian apologists so determined that solar gods do not kill bulls, even if Christ did not?

The Mithraeaum

Mithras worship took place in churches called grottos, imitations of caves or sometimes actual caves or catacombs, a small oblong space with a domed ceiling about 7-10 metres wide, decorated with carved reliefs, statues and paintings. Since Mithras was born in a cave, the mithraea, the churches of the cult, had to be located underground, and if no natural cave was conveniently available, an area of ground was excavated and roofed over with a dome, accounting for the preservation of so many of them. The Christians could not knock down holes in the ground, so they filled them in and built churches on top ensuring that the mithraea were preserved in their foundations. A normal Mithraeum would accommodate only thirty or thirty-five worshippers at one time, and the size of a congregation must have been deliberately limited to ensure that its members were truly close companions.

To enhance the resemblence to a natural cave the ceiling of the mithraeum was vaulted and sometimes was rendered with crushed pottery to give an illusion of rock. The ceilings sometimes had vents to admit shafts of light. A narrow aisle about 12-20 metres long usually ran down the centre of the room with a stone bench on either side for two or three dozen members to sit or recline on during the service. If an ordinary room was being prepared as a grotto then dining couches were arranged in two rows down the length of the room. At the end of the aisle, opposite the entrance, was a symbolic mural, carved relief or tapestry of Mithras slaying a bull inside a cave like the mithraeum itself, which would be brightly illuminated in the dimness of the grotto. This tauroctony was the main icon of Mithraism. This mural was often one of a diptych, the other showing Mithras sitting at a table with Helios, the sun.

From the arrangement of benches or dining couches, and from wall paintings in some mithraea, it seems worshippers were initiated into the celebration of a common meal. In the Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres at Ostia each bench is divided into six sections and each section is associated with an astrological sign. If each sign represented a member, six men were reclining on each bench, giving a total of twelve. Devotees sought communion with Mithras to prepare for the final judgement. Mithras slayed the Cosmic Bull, and from this bull he obtained the “eternal blood” that was shed for the salvation of mankind.

He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and am I commingled with him, shall not be saved.

Mithraic Communion (M J Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God)


The literary and archaeological remains of the religion of Mithras suggest that the salvation of man, symbolized by the slaying of the Primæval Bull, is ritualized in a communal holy meal with the brethren. Evidence that this divine supper came from Persian religion is the terminology. Professor Moghdam tells us the Persian for a “good meal” meaning a “sacred meal” is “hu-khoresht” where the meat is Persian “nushkhare”, the edible thing of immortality, and “nushabe” is the water of immortality. The Greek form of the “hu-khoresht” is “eucharist”. Moreover, two ancient Iranian words for the holy repast in the Gathas are “myazda” and “myastra”. Moghdam believes the first form transposed into the Persian “miz” and Latin “mass”, and the second form gives Greek “mysterion”, mystery. That is why Mithraism and Christianity were mystery religions. These religions were private and required ritual purity, but not secret. Anyone could apply to join and attend the rituals. Secrecy is not essential to the “myastra”.

This is evidence that the votaries of Mithras came to think of their holy suppers as theophagous, with the cannibalistic implications of the Christian eucharist. Their Last Suppers commemorated, and hence doubtless imitated, the sacred meal at which Mithras and his assistants, celebrating their victory over the powers of evil, partook of bread and wine, the bread being made from the wheat that sprang from the spine of the slain bull, and the wine from the grapes that sprang from the bull’s blood. The Mithraic concept of redemption by blood appears in the taurobolia celebrated by the religious in the waning Roman Empire—in a lustrum, they were cleansed of their sins by the blood of a bull that was slain in imitation of Mithras’s slaying of the Primæval Bull. However, there is no way of inferring that a bull was actually sacrificed and eaten. Most mithraea seated less than 40 worshippers and the rooms were too small for bull sacrifices.

Were all mithraeums simple grottos, merely churches as opposed to cathedrals? Did the Roman emperors neglect their Mithraic religion in never building any impressive mithraeums, even though the official religion for a long time was Mithraism under the name of the Unconquered Sun? Several emperors were proud to be followers of Mithras. Trajan was pictured with the Mithraic Phrygian cap of liberty. In fact, Professor Moghdam tells us the basilica of Trajan and the magnificent halls attached to the baths of Caracalla were set apart for worship of Mithras.

Since Mithraic worship was exclusively for men, their wives mainly went to the temple of the Magna Mater (Cybele) which was usually located just across the street for their convenience and, being entirely above ground, was usually effaced completely by the fury of the Christians when they took over. The cults of Mithras and the Magna Mater seem to have been closely related, both emerging from neighbouring parts of Anatolia, and the two theologies interpenetrated to some degree, as in the significance of a bull. Women could indulge in a “taurobolium” and have their sins washed away by the magical blood of the bull slain as if in memory of the Primæval Bull. They also used water for ritual purification, and some scholars suppose that the Magna Mater was a form of Anahita of the Persian trinity for whom a bull was undoubtedly sacrificed.

Mithraism had no extensive priestly caste. Each small group of worshippers had a “father”, simply a member of the highest rank of the cult, and the most common grade of membership mentioned on inscriptions, though a “father of fathers” (pater patrum, equivalent to a Christian bishop) is mentioned often enough for it not to have been uncommon, presumably in mithraea with large memberships. Why are Christian priests called father?

The mysteries of Mithras always remained a private and voluntary religion, never receiving huge state patronage, so the shrines and churches of Mithras remained humble and the worshippers pious and egalitarian. Worshippers of Mithras, unlike Christians, were free to continue to participate in the state cults, like that of the emperor, which amounted to little more than singing a national anthem is today—mere trappings of patriotic loyalty rather than a world view. In Mithraic churches, noble, freedman and slave met as equals. Mithraism had its male celibates and expected its initiates to repudiate worldly offerings expecting instead heavenly wealth.

Symbols and Imagery

Mithraic rituals were stylized enactments of episodes in the mythos as depicted around the cave of the tauroctony when it is thus illustrated, and around the walls of the mithraeum:

  1. the birth  from a rock (the Petra Genetrix, “the mother rock”) of Mithras, as a young man holding a torch
  2. his bringing water from a rock with an arrow
  3. Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar
  4. the pursuit and capture of the bull
  5. the tauroctony—killing the bull, with symbols of the Good and Wicked Creations around
  6. Sol’s submission to Mithras
  7. the holy communion—Mithras and Sol partaking of a heavenly banquet, sitting on the skin of the bull symbolizing life out of the bull’s death
  8. the ascent of Mithras to the heavens in a sun chariot.

Mithraic imagery looks to be largely astrological. The setting of the tauroctony is a cave encircled by the chariot of the sun and the signs of the zodiac. Note that Sol and Mithras are distinct. The Neoplatonic philosopher, Porphyry, says the cave of the tauroctony, which the domed Mithraic grottos were meant to imitate, was “the cosmos.” The zodiac, planets, sun, moon, and stars are commonly portrayed in Mithraic art.

The Greeks had a god of the heavens called Uranus, and the Indians had the same god under the name Varuna, a sun god who was the equal of Mithras, but was also the god of the night sky, and therefore also a god of the heavens, like Uranus. Now, Zoroaster introduced the moral God, Ahuramazda, to replace a plethora of gods hitherto worshipped by the Iranians, and he seems to stand for the heavens, heavenly light, and the hosts of heaven, perhaps because many gods were planets and heavenly bodies, and by worshipping the heavens, all of the hosts of heaven, the planets, stars, constellations, sun, moon, and, often in those days, clouds, meteors, thunder, lightning and so on, were automatically made into one God, of which the others were just aspects at best. When the Persians invented Judaism, the Jewish god was called Yehouah of Hosts (Yehouah Sabaoth), an exactly equivalent god to Ahuramazda—a god of heaven. It seems then that Ahuramazda—and therefore Yehouah—was a promoted Varuna. However, possibly Ahuramazda was always seen as a combination of the bright and dark suns, Mithras and Varuna, the two names being common togther in Aryan theophoric names.

Either way, Zoroaster’s full scheme buckled quite quickly because it is easier said than done to eliminate people’s favorite deities. In this case, Mithras emerged again seemingly as a sun god, but actually a god superior to the sun, and surrounded by heavenly symbols—plainly Ahuramazda personified.

Mithras was usually shown clad in a tunic, a cloak decorated with the heavenly lights when it is shown, Persian trousers, and a pointed floppy cap called a Phrygian cap, as slaying the cosmic bull created in Persian mythology by Ahuramazda. Now Persian mythology does not have Mithras slaying the cosmic bull—it is Ahriman, the Evil Spirit, who does that, thereby spoiling the original perfection of the world, and, rather like the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, introducing confusion and change into what before was still and perfect.

However, there is a later version of the myth that suggests that Ahuramazda had known everything from the outset because he has foresight, but Ahriman does not. So when Ahriman arranged to kill the bull to spoil the Good Creation, Ahuramazda contrived that in so doing the bull would bring many benefits into the world for people who had to suffer the Time of Long Dominion when Ahriman was a rival to Ahuramazda. He did this by making the sacrifice of the Cosmic Bull the first pious sacrifice of humanity by arranging that Yima, the first man, actually killed the bull. The sacrifice fertilized the earth and brought about all the animals of God’s Good Creation that human beings have found useful. Realizing he had been tricked, Ahriman introduced a lot of horrible animals that would torment people.

It is all this that the Mithrais grotto mural shows. It represents the sacrifice of the Primæval Bull, the first animal, from the soul of which came all other life as a result of this sacrifice. Mithras is pulling back the bull’s head by its nose and upper lip and stabbing its exposed neck with a dagger in his right hand, the bull’s blood re-entering the earth yielding ears of corn. Thus it stood for life, vitality, vigour, peace and plenty—the whole of Ahuramazda’s Good Creation. But the Evil Creation of Ahriman was shown biting and stinging the good world. A serpent drinks the bull’s blood. A dog hangs on to its flank. A scorpion nips at its testicles. A raven perches on the bull’s back, or on Mithras’s cloak, and a tree stands by. It will be an olive tree for its leaves mimic the two Mithratic attendants, Cautes and Cautopates, as Porphyry explains:

In summer, the white leaves of the olive tend upwards, but in winter the whiter leaves are bent downward.

Porphyry, Nymphs

An olive is the symbol of the divine wisdom, the world not being made rashly and casually, but from this divine wisdom. The sun god up and to the left, and the moon goddess up and to the right, sometimes in chariots, observe the sacrifice. Two torch bearers are in attendance, miniature versions of Mithras, one with an up turned torch and one with a down turned torch. A torch bearer in ancient symbolism denoted the sun. In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, we read:

I carried a lighted torch thus I was adorned as the sun.

In the mysteries of Eleusis, the torch bearer was dressed as the sun. In ancient symbolism a cross represents the equinoxes, when the equinoctial plane intersects the celestial equator, making a notional cross in the heavens. The two torch bearers in the tauroctony are often shown with crossed legs because they stand for the sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes. The spring equinox is denoted by a raised torch representing light, summer, life, spirit and the liberated soul rising to immortality. The autumn equinox is shown by a lowered torch representing darkness, winter, death, matter and the soul trapped in the body in Ahriman’s imperfect world.

Yima, the first man, is the Persian Adam, and here is Mithras representing him killing the Primæval bull bringing its benefits. Zoroastrianism had a saviour, the Saoshyant, meant to be Zoroaster reincarnated, but the implication here seems to be that Yima and the Saoshyant are actually God sent saviours, the one who saves the world from the utter chaos and misery of Ahriman’s wicked Creation, and the other who restores the perfection of the Original Creation in a similar way, through sacrificing a bull. Mithras is the redeemer of the world, ending up in heaven having destroyed evil and restored the world at the End of Time.

Mithras was born of a rock, and was worshipped in caves. The cave really stood for the interior of the mortal universe, beyond which lived the immortals, the gods. To the immortals, a mortal rising from the cave of the mortal world into the immortal one would be like seeing a man arise from a rock—the sphere of the heavens being considered to be of crystal, a rock. The cave is the imperfect world spoilt by Ahriman, and to emerge from it is to enter a perfect world. The notion then is that of the much later Cathars who considered our own imperfect world to be hell, and our aim is to rejoin the god of pure spirit in heaven by eschewing all wickedness, thus rejecting the evil world.

In the mythos, another scenes is that in which Mithras sits on a rock with a drawn bow and shoots arrows into another rock to draw water from it. The Mithraic initiate was led by an instructor (a mystagogue) to where the pater waited for him dressed as the God and carrying a bow and arrows. The initiate enters into such a scene unsure whether he is worthy, and concerned that the arrow might be destined for him. Of course he has no such worry, in fact. By getting that far, he has been accepted into the least ranks of the mysteries of the Persians. The instructor explains the scene in terms of the Mitraitic mythos.

Another scene is evidently after the bull has been slain, with Mithras and the Sun god celebrating a banquet on the hide of the bull. Deriving from this, the main pious act was a banquet, and that is why the mithraea are set out in preparation for such a dinner, with members reclining on either side of an aisle on platforms to eat in Greek style.

Roger Beck writes that any solar religion must have an annual cycle of festivals based on the sun’s annual journey. Natalis invicti (The Birth of the Unconquered One) is mentioned without saying which one unconquered was saved, though it would be hard to make it anyone other than Mithras. Assuming it means the Unconquered Sun as a separate entity, it is still hard to think Mithras as a sun god would have a different birthday. From the prominent scenes in the mythos, the birth must be at the winter solstice, the generation of water from a rock just after the birth (Water Carrier), the killing of the bull in the early summer (Taurus), the banquet at the summer solstice.

Approval of an application to join was confirmed by shaking hands with the pater, just as Antiochus shook hands with Mithras in the Commagene reliefs. In the enactment of the Mithraic mythos, Mithras and Sol shake hands. Members had their own greeting, not the usual Roman “Hail!” (Salvus!) but “Nama!”—a Persian word. The grades were, in descending order, pater patrum, pater, heliodromus, persian, leo, miles, nymphus, corax. The top two are shown representing Mithras and Sol respectively in the wall paintings in the Santa Prisca mithraeum on the Aventine in Rome, the heliodromus having a characteristic head dress with solar rays. Mithras rarely has solar characteristics. He is simply a man. The bottom two can be reasonably assumed to have been novitiate levels, so that miles (soldier) is the lowest full grade of membership.

The reason for this is that nymphus is from the Greek for a bride, a curious rank in an all male organization, and so this masculine form of the word is taken to mean “bridegroom”. A bride or bridegroom is newly married, and yet has important secrets still to discover, and duties to perform well, rather too as the nymphal stage of an insect is not the fully developed animal. So the nymphus has passed the introductory stage but is not yet a full member. Moreover, in his scholion (lecture) on the Phaedrus of Plato, Hermias explains that nymphs are Goddesses who preside over regeneration, so here we have worshippers hopeful that they will be regenerated or, one might say, be born again. In the communion meal, they possibly had to serve the higher members before they were able to partake of it, probably served up by the initiates, the lowest grade.

What of corax which means a raven, the initiates? In Zoroastrian thought, a raven being a carrion eater was a prime scavenger of dead bodies in the Towers of Silence, where dead people were left to be stripped of their flesh by birds so that decaying flesh could not pollute the elements. So, crows served a necessary task keeping the elements unpolluted by decay. Decay was caused by the Evil Spirit, so crows were part of the good creation, though as scavengers of human flesh, they seemed unclean. In Persian society, those who had to handle dead bodies were the lowest caste—just as in Judaism, contact with death was unclean, but the Persians could explain why! It is fair to conclude that the corax was the lowest grade of membership in the mithraeum for these reasons. They were entering a pure organization from a polluted world, and began as necessary scavengers—they will not have partaken of the communion meal itself, but would have had to eat the left overs, after having served the holy meal to the senior grades, and removed the remainders and the debris.

No one knows what the structure of the membership of the mithraeum was, that is how many there were at each grade, but, if there was this duty of upward service and downward instruction, and it was to be individual to preserve confidentiality, then it was probably a Fibonacci series, or approximated to it:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13

Thus there was one each of the pater and heliodromus ranks, two persons to represent Cautes and Cautopates, the spring and summer equinoxes, three leos, five mileses, eight nymphuses, and thirteen coraxes. Then the thirteen ravens could take individual instruction from the eight brides and the five soldiers, and so on up the ranks. Thus the Fibonacci series, such as it was, arose for practical reasons not from a love of mathematics. It also implies that the ranks were effectively divided according to whether they were instructed by someone from the grade immediately above, or the grade two levels up. Curiously, if the grading is taken to its logical conclusion so that every one of the ideal number of 33 members were ranked according to the grades of their tutors, there would, of course, be 33 degrees, as there allegedly are in Freemasonry!

Less familiar Symbols

As far off as China, on the Mithraic monument of Hsian-fu, various Mithraic symbols are explained—the cross, the pearl, the lotus and the dolphin:

  • The cross was a Mithraic symbol of the brotherhood of man, the aim of Mithraism being the the the Kingdom of God on earth, the unity of the people of the four corners of the world—a truly universal religion.
  • The pearl is a beautiful, pure thing that grows from a seed in its shell in water, one of the sacred elements of Mithraism. It signifies the miraculous seed of Zoroaster from which the Saoshyant will develop when the pure virgin bathes in the sacred water. The pearl, in Mithraic monuments, appears in      the hands of angels in Taq-e-Bostan, in the beak of birds notably in eastern Iran, and in literature, even appearing as as the Pearl of Great Price in the gospels and in the Syriac Hymn of the Pearl. The pearl or its shell sometimes appears at the birth of Mithra looking like an egg  where it has been misinterpreted as Orphic.
  • The  dolphin has similar aqueous connotations as a sympathetic creature to mankind, which raises its young in water.  This symbol is found on some Mithraic monuments in Europe and appears abundantly in the khirbahs or mithraeums in Syria and Arabia.
  • The lotus is a water-flower. Mithra is often shown standing in a lotus as he is at Taq-e-Bostan, nominally a Parthian monument. It has, though, been re-dedicated, as its cave-like construction, its Mithraic appurtenances of flowing spring and small lake, the figure of Mithras standing on a lotus flower, and its religious scenes inside, betray. Moreover, it is in Baghestan, a name which honorrs Mithras as the “Baga”.

Zurvan—Father Time


Cumont originally thought the lion headed figure in the coils of a snake in the tauroctony was Zurvan, the god of eternal time (probably another sun god from surya). I F Legge thought it was the Arimanius attested in Mithraic epigraphy—Ahriman, the “Prince of Darkness” and therefore evil.

Theodicy has always been a problem in Patriarchal religions beginning with the first. What is the source of evil? Persian religion has the solution—a wicked God. Even so, why were there two gods in Zoroastrianism, one of Good and one of Evil? If the Good God is ultimately supreme, then why was there a Wicked God at all? How could a Good God be so stupid as to create, whether voluntarily or inadvertently, an implacable adversary as powerful as himself?

There is no answer to a non-question—myths do not have to be and often are not coherent—but they are the questions that theologions think they can answer. They do it by inventing new myths. The myths were, of course, invented originally to seem to answer difficult questions like that of theodicy. Monotheism is faced with the problem of why a good god would create evil. Dualism answers it, but evil cannot be justified if society is not to be undermined, so the power of the evil spirit has to be temporary.

Zurvan or Zervan is the Greek and Latin, Aeon or Cronos (Saturn), evidently the same as Chronos despite the changed spelling. The distinction came about because the last day of the week in Mesopotamia was named after Saturn, but it also acted as the signal of the passage of time, a week. The Greeks inherited the system, but distinguished “Saturn”, the planet, and “Time” by changing the initial letter from “K” to “X”.

Imagined as an hermaphrodite able to engender children by himself, Zurvan was depicted in the west as a nude male figure having upturned and downturned wings and the head of a lion, with a serpent coiled many times about his body. Time is hermaphroditic because it has dual aspects, able to be viewed in two directions, like the images of Janus. Ouroboros, the serpent consuming its own tail, stood for time as the perennial motion of the sun through the heavens. But the Persians had in their theology the concept of the End of Time, because the battle of Good and Evil is fought only for the period of limited time, called the “Time of Long Dominion.” The serpent spiralling around Zurvan/Ahriman stands for this.

Zoroaster had called the rival gods twins, so they had to be brothers. Both Ahuramazda and Ahriman are sons of Zurvan in the evolved myth of Zoroastrianism that tried to account for the equality of the two spirits while saving Ahuramazda from being responsible for creating evil, as Yehouah did. The twin sons were therefore themselves both aspects of time—just as Prometheus looked forwards and had foresight, but Epimetheus looked backwards and only knew what had already happened. Ahriman is the god of a particular time in the history of the cosmos, the Time of Long Dominion. Zurvan did not need a parent because it is eternal.

Thus eternal time is split into future time—Ahuramazda can read the future—and past time—Ahriman knows only what has gone. Human beings can look forward to the re-establishment of a state of goodness and perfection that Ahuramazda originally foresaw, but which was spoilt at its inception by Ahriman, the cause of change and corruption. Logically then Ahuramazda stood for future time, birth and the hope of static perfection when good triumphs over evil. Mithras mediated, but was the ally of the good God, the face of God to humanity, in the created world.

Zoroastrian teaching was that Ahuramazda would put an end to time! The universe is restored to its state of timeless perfection in which nothing will happen ever again. Eternity is static! Christians said, “time shall be no more”. In Zoroastrian eschatology, time caused change in Ahuramazda’s perfect creation. Time is thus equal to the Evil Spirit and, after the Last Judgement, Ahuramazda abolishes it restoring perfection. The Zurvanists did not think they were spoiling Zoroaster’s idea—they were distinguishing between eternity and historical time.

After the gradual revival of Zoroastrianism under the Parthians, the Zurvanists flourished in the old Persian territories as one of the Zoroastrian sects until c 531 AD, when the orthodox Magi persuaded Khusrau (Chosroes) I, the greatest of the Sassanian kings of Persia, to declare the Zurvanists as heretics. To save his subjects from future mistakes, Khusrau authorized his orthodox Magi to compile an authoritative text of the Avesta and gave it his approval, which carried great weight. This is the version that was the basis of the text that we now have.

Zurvanism seems to have been an ancient idea itself, which Zoroaster tried to abolish, but which, like Mithras, bounced back. Time obsesses people, especially in that eventually we all die, and many people cannot face the idea of death. Zoroaster’s perfect world was static—when something is perfect, any change in it must make it less than perfect, so change is incompatible with perfection. Yet a static world is timeless for motion, change, is necessary for the measurement of time, and only a timeless world is a world without end. To reconstitute the original perfection of the newly created world, motion must cease, and so time must cease. That means the wicked Ahriman who is time, but only Time of Long Dominion, not Eternal Time, must be destroyed, or confined eternally.

The relevance of this to Mithraism, which spread west just when Zurvanism became prominent in Persia/Parthia, is that it seems to embody many of these notions. Ahriman tainted Ahuramazda’s perfect static creation by introducing time to it, and therefore motion and decay, killing the Primæval bull, or causing it to be killed by Yima, the first man. But Ahriman only has a limited dominion, he is Time of Long (but not eternal) Dominion. Eternal Dominion is restored by the abolition of time, for then motion dies too, and pollution, decay and so on—entropy as we now call it. Mithras brings the prospect of this about each year.

He is the mediator between Ahuramazda, the God of Future Time, hope and fortune, and Ahriman, the God of Past Time, corruption and despair. The past has gone, already decayed, and the future is yet to come, but will be polluted by Ahriman until the perfection of the Creation is restored, when time ceases, and the perfect world stands still forever. Mithras is also an aspect of time. He is the present, which mediates, stands between, the past and the future. Each year, the duty of his followers is to encourage and celebrate his incarnation on earth—perhaps as Yima reincarnated, or Zoroaster, but either way as the saoshyant, the saviour—to sacrifice a bull to restore the original Creation. Eventually, when enough good people sincerely desire it, it will succeed.

Mithras, then, is the present, today, this year. He is the daily sun, and the annual sun, but not merely the sun hanging in the heavens, but the sun as time, standing between tomorrow and yesterday, and between next year and last year. Each day and year the sun measures time as it traverses the heavens, and each year is a microcosm of the whole of the Time of Long Dominion—history. So, history is recorded in the motion of the sun through the constellations, and every year end the original Creation is enacted. So it is that Mithras has twelve attendants. Moreover, the sun shines bright during the day and throughout the summer six months, but is extinguished at night and burns dimly in the winter half of the year. So Mithras has two aspects, Cautes and Cautopates, when he shines brightly in hope and then shines dimly in despair.

The other symbols in the tauroctony, always thought to be astronomical, are not. The bull, dog and raven represent the good creation, and the scorpion and snake the wicked one. Mithras’s hunting dog helped him to bring down the bull ready for sacrifice, but the snake and scorpion are aspects of the evil creation of Ahriman, the snake standing for Ahriman himself, and the scorpion trying to negate the bull’s fertility, for the Primæval bull’s semen gave rise to all that is good in the world. The raven is a carrion eater, which picks dead flesh from the bones thus purifying them in the towers of silence. It is also a solar messenger, so the raven is a symbol of renewal.

The whole scene represents regeneration, recreation, the creation anew of Ahuramazda’s good creation, with its hope of everlasting peace and tranquillity in a perfect unchanging world.




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