Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, , at sacred-texts.com
To trace completely the history of the cultus, however, we should have to make an examination note merely of Mithraism proper, but of at least three older systems. No historical principle
is better established than this, that all historic religions run into and derive from some other religions, the creeds of all mankind being simply phases of a continuous evolution. So, when we say that Mithraism derives from Persia, we are already implying that it affiliates more distantly to the religions of India and Mesopotamia. Here it must suffice, therefore, to give only the briefest sketch of origins.
We trace the cult specifically in the earliest Aryan documentsin the Vedas, in which the deity Mitra or Mithra is one of the prominent figures. 1 Seeing that there already he duplicates with other deities, it may be that, to begin with, the name was only a special epithet of the sun, 2 the central force in later myth as in our planetary system; and that it lay with the priests and their royal patrons to determine which Name should be the most popular God, since the whole evolution was one of words. In any case, it is in Aryan Persia that the name of Mithra makes its fortune: in India it passes into the background of the verbal host.
In the Rig-Veda it is frequently associated with Varuna 3 and Agni; and in the Atharva-Veda Mitra is so defined as to make his solar character certain. Of a deity who stands in general for the principle of light, it is there said that "In the evening he becomes Varuna Agni; in the morning he becomes Mitra going forth," 4 an expression which plainly points to the Sun-God. That Mithra was not developed into a pre-eminent Vedic deity is to be proximately explained by the fact that Agni, who as fire-God and light-God had similar attributes, was better suited to the purposes of the highly-specialised priesthood which built up the Vedas. The God of the sacrificial fire was eminently adapted to sacerdotal ends; and it is in that respect that Agni is oftenest presented. It may have been, indeed, that the Aryan invaders of India had thus early assimilated in the case of Agni a popular pre-Aryan (though not Hindu) worship, 5 as they did later with the Hindu cult of Krishna; while in Persia the Aryan Gods may have had a simpler course of development. On the other hand, it seems probable that the Ahura Mazda
[paragraph continues] (Ormazd) of the Persians is a variant of the Assyrian God-name Assara Mazas, and at bottom identical with the God Assur or Asshur. 1 On that view it is more likely that the Aryans were influenced by the ancient Mesopotamian cults than vice versa. 2 However that may be, though we find the sacramental Vedic beverage the Soma preserved in the Persian cult as the Haoma, that principle did not predominate; and Mithra, in the character of Sun-God and War-God, grew in popular importance. Of Agni, as a special personification of the sacred fire, there is in the Persian system no other trace.
The Iranian documents which present to us what remains of the ancient lore of Mithraism are for the most part contained in the collection called the Zendavesta, a somewhat unfortunate title, since Zend signifies, not, as was formerly supposed, a language, but "a commentary or explanation"; and Avesta (from old Persian âbastâ, "the law") is the proper name of the original texts, of which the language somewhat resembles the modern Afghan. The collection is divided into two parts, of which the first is the Avesta properly so-called, containing (1) the Vendidâd, a compilation of religious laws and mythical tales; (2) the Vispêrad, a set of litanies for the sacrifice; and (3) the Yasna, consisting of other litanies and five hymns or Gâthas written in what appears to be an older dialect than the rest. The second part is called the Khorda (Small) Avesta, and contains short prayers for general usenamely, five Gâh, thirty formularies of the Sîrôzah, three Âfrigân, and six Nyâyis. It is usual to include in the Khorda, though they do not strictly belong to it, the Yashts, hymns of praise to the several Izads or lesser deities (who, however, here include Mithra) and some fragments.
As to the age of the different portions there is considerable dispute. In the opinion of the late M. James Darmesteter, one of the highest authorities, certain quasi-scientific sections (Nasks) of the Avesta were written as late as the middle of the third century of our era, in imitation of Greek and Sanskrit scientific treatises; 3 and the same scholar places the important Hôm Yasht late in the second century. Much of the Vendidâd, however, is reckoned pre-Alexandrian; and while M. Darmesteter held the Gâthas to be post-Alexandrian, and very late in spirit albeit the oldest texts in the
[paragraph continues] Avesta, other students count them among the earliest items of all. 1 Broadly speaking, the religion of the Avesta, commonly called the Mazdean, from the God-name Ahura Mazda, is a highly composite one; but "there are few instances of foreign elements and concepts so freely borrowed by a religion and so harmoniously blended in the original mould." 2
284:1 "Mitra is greater than the earth and the sky: he supports even all the Gods" (Rig Veda, iii, 59, 7-8; cited by Max Müller, Hibbert Lectures on Religion in India, 2nd ed. p. 275). Two of his doubles, Pushan and Savitri, are all-seeing, and leaders of souls to the abode of the blest. (Id.). Mitra is further the eldest of the eight sons of Aditi (Muir, Sanskrit Texts, iv, 14).
284:2 "Obwohl Mitra ursprünglich ein Sonnengott ist, wird die Sonne zu Mitra-Varunas Auge" (A. Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie, Kl. Ausg. 1910, p. 40).
284:3 Muir, as cited, p. 219.
284:4 Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda, 1894, pp. 190-1, citing Atharva-Veda, xiii, 3, 13; Max Müller, Hibbert Lectures, 2nd ed. p. 297.
284:5 Cp. Tiele, Outlines, pp. 109-110; Fischer, Heidenthum und Offenbarung, 1878, p. 59; Justi, Gesch. d. oriental. Völker im Altertum, pp. 397-8, where fire-worship is traced to the natural "fire-wells" of the East. Such fire was termed "Son of Ahuramazda."
285:1 Miss Plunkett, Ancient Calendars and Constellations, 1903, pp. 72 sq., 149 sq.
285:2 Miss Plunkett argues (p. 75) for Assyrian borrowings from the ancestors of the Medes. May there not have been both an early and a late assimilation?
285:3 Introduction to the Zendavesta, 2nd ed. p. xlvi.
286:1 This is the view of Mr. L. H. Mills, as it was that of Haug. The latter, however (Essays on the Parsis, 3rd ed. pp. 257-260, 287), leaves his position somewhat obscure, arguing as he does on the one hand that the Gâthas are the oldest parts of the Zendavesta, and on the other that they ignore Mithra and other Zendavestan Gods, the sacrifice of the Homa, etc., because Zoroaster did not believe in them. M. Darmesteter (Introd. to the Zendavesta, vol. iv of "Sacred Books of the East" series, 2nd ed. p. lxv) supposes the Gâthas to have been written (in a dead language) between 100 B.C. and 100 C.E., and the Vendidâd still later, pronouncing the latter a return to an older form of doctrine, however. Neither view seems satisfactory. M. Darmesteter argues (pp. xlviii-ix), for instance, (a) that one passage in the Hôm Yasht can best be understood as referring to Alexander the Great, (b) that the Yasht is a "coherent whole," and (e) that it is therefore as a whole post-Alexandrian. He thus makes no allowance at this point for redactions or interpolations.
286:2 Darmesteter, p. lxix.