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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 4. Evolution of Mithra.

Putting aside as otherwise insoluble the problem of "Zoroastrianism," and recognising that that system and the special cult of Mithra were originally separate but probably fused by some conquest, 4 we proceed to note that the Mithra-cult, both in this connection and later, underwent an evolution in which the God's status slowly fluctuated, or was readjusted, like that of so many other ancient deities. For a time (and this suggests a Zoroastrian influence) he was graded as the subordinate of Ahura-Mazda (Ormazd).

"In the Indo-Iranian religion" [M. Darmesteter writes 5] "the Asura of Heaven was often invoked in company with Mithra, the God of the heavenly light; and he let him share with himself the universal sovereignty. In the Veda they are invoked as a pair (Mitrâ-Varunâ) which enjoys the same powers and rights as Varunâ alone, as there is nothing more in Mari), Varunâ than in Varunâ alone, Mitra being the light of heaven, that is, the light of Varunâ. But Ahura-Mazda could no longer bear an equal, and Mithra [in the Avesta] became one of his

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creatures: 'This Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, I have created as worthy of sacrifice, as worthy of glorification, as I, Ahura-Mazda, am myself.' 1 But old formulæ, no longer understood, in which Mithra and Ahura, or rather Mithra-Ahura, are invoked in an indivisible unity, dimly remind one that the Creator was formerly a brother to his creature."

"He preserved, however, a high situation, both in the concrete and in the abstract mythology. As the God of the heavenly light, the lord of vast luminous space, of the wide pastures above, he became later the God of the Sun, Deo invicto Soli Mithræ (in Persian Mihr is the Sun). As light and truth were one and the same thing, viewed with the eyes of the body and of the mind, he becomes the God of truth and faith. He punishes the Mithra-Drug, 'him who lies to Mithra' (or 'who lies to the contract,' since Mithra as a neuter noun means 'friendship, agreement, contract' 2); he is a judge in hell, in company with Rashnu, 'the true one,' the God of truth, a mere offshoot of Mithra in his moral character." 3

The ritual of the Avesta is clear on the subject. "We sacrifice unto Mithra and Ahura, the two great, imperishable, holy Gods; and unto the stars, and the moon, and the sun, with the trees that yield up baresma" [burned on the altar]. "We sacrifice unto Mithra, the lord of all countries, whom Ahura-Mazda made the most glorious of all the Gods in the world unseen." "So may Mithra and Ahura, the two great Gods, come to us for help. We sacrifice unto the bright, undying, shining, swift-horsed sun." 4 And in the teaching associated with Zoroaster we find Mithra extolled by Ahura-Mazda as a beneficent and comforting Spirit. "Happy that man, I think"—said Ahura-Mazda—"O Spitama Zarathustra! for whom a holy priest......who is the Word Incarnate, offers up a sacrifice unto Mithra......Straight to that man, I think, will Mithra come, to visit his dwelling. When Mithra's boons will come to him, as he follows God's teaching, and thinks according to God's teaching." 5 This, though still ancient, was doubtless a relatively late and high form of the cultus in Persia, since in the Avesta we find Mithra repeatedly invoked as a warlike and formidable deity, a God of battles, swift to assail and slay the enemies of truth and justice—which would normally mean, the enemies of his worshippers.

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[paragraph continues] But the evolution of a moral cult on such a basis was in the due course of religious adaptation, since in the Mahâbhârata Agni combines the same set of characteristics, being at once friendly to warriors and typified by a dove, while as the Mouth of the Gods he fulfils the highest moral functions. 1

Thus, then, we have the cultus of Mithra as the Sun-God, the deity of light and truth, created by, and yet co-equal with, the Supreme Deity, 2 and fighting on the side of the good against the evil power Angra-Mainyu (Ahriman)—this at a period long before the Christian era. So much is certain, whatever we may decide as to the actual period of the writing of the Avesta, as it has come down to us. Of the literature of Mazdeism, of course, a great deal has perished; this appearing, says M. Darmesteter, not only from internal evidence, but from history.

"The Arab conquest proved fatal to the religious literature of the Sassanian ages, a great part of which was either destroyed by the fanaticism of the conquerors and the new converts, or lost during the long exodus of the Parsis The cause that preserved the Avesta is obvious: taken as a whole, it does not profess to be a religious encyclopædia, but only a liturgical collection: and it bears more likeness to a prayer-book than to the Bible." 3

We can therefore only infer the nature of the rest of the system. But we do know that, as time went on, the cultus of Mithra became more and more considerable. It is hardly accurate to say, as does Canon Rawlinson, that "Mithra was originally not held in very high esteem"; but it is the historic fact that

"he ultimately came to occupy a place only a little inferior to that assigned, from the first, to the Ahura-Mazda. Darius, the son of Hystaspes, placed the emblems of Ahura-Mazda and of Mithra in equally conspicuous positions on the sculptured tablet above his tomb [B.C. 485]; and his example was followed by all the later monarchs of his race whose sepulchres are still in existence. Artaxerxes Mnemon [d. B.C. 358] placed an image of Mithra in the temple attached to the royal palace of Suza. He also in his inscriptions unites Mithra with Ahura-Mazda, and

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prays for their conjoint protection. Artaxerxes Ochus [d. B.C. 337] does the same a little later; and the practice is also observed in portions of the Zendavesta composed about this period." 1

[paragraph continues] Artaxerxes Mnemon, too, swore by "the light of Mithras," as our William the Conqueror swore by "the splendour of God"; 2 and in general the importance and range of the Mithraic worship at an early period may be clearly inferred from the mere vogue of the name Mithridates, "the justice of Mithra," which we find in use at least six hundred years before the Christian era. 3

It is after the Persian conquest of Babylon (538 B.C.) that Mithraism begins to take the shape it wears in the period of the Roman empire. Though historical details are lacking, we are broadly entitled to say that "the Mazdeism of the Persians, in uniting with the astrolatry of the Chaldeans, produced Mithraism." 4 It was presumably before this development that Mazdeism entered Armenia under the earlier Achamenidæ, 5 who conquered that region about 625 B.C.; for whereas Ahuramazda, the Supreme God, was in some measure superseded by Mithra in the later Mithraic cult, 6 in virtue of the same psychological tendency that later gave to the Christian Jesus a nominal equality with and a practical precedence over Yahweh, we find the older Mazdean deity adored as the thundering God in Eastern Iberia as late as the fourth century. 7 But Mithraism in turn was prepared in Armenia for its cosmopolitan career in the western world; since it was from Armenian Mazdeism that it borrowed its enigmatic "supreme God," Kronos-Zervan, the Time Spirit, a Babylonian conception, represented in the mysteries by the lion-headed or demon-headed and serpent-encircled

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figure which bears the two keys. 1 And this deity in turn tells of Babylonian influence, since the conception of the two locked doors of exit and entrance in the firmament is of Babylonian origin. 2

We must not exclude, however, the possibility that certain features of the Mithraic cult derive equally with those of some Babylonian cults from a common source of great antiquity. Mithra partly equates with Bel or Enlil, who seems to have been originally a War-God of "mighty weapons," and was known as "lord of lands," 3 even as Mithra is "lord of wide pastures" and "all countries" and a bearer of "glorious weapons"; yet these seem to be early and not late attributes of Mithra. Bel, again, gives place to Merodach (Marduk), who assumes his titles and who becomes the Mediator-God; 4 but this evolution in Mithra's case may follow older lines; even as his bracketing with Ahura-Mazda, as Bel was bracketed with Anu, 5 appears to be early and not late. New Year's day is the festival alike of Bel, Merodach, and Mithra: this is an ancient idea. 6 Yet again, when we find the Babylonian Sun-God and War-God Shamas (the prototype of the Hebrew "judge" Samson) figuring especially as the Judge and the Saviour of men, the destroyer of the wicked and of the enemies of his worshippers, 7 we need not suppose that Mithra, who has all these attributes, is primarily modelled on Shamas, though he was identified with him: 8 the underlying concept is prior to both cults. On the other hand, when Mithra absorbs in himself the idea of the Logos—who for the Babylonians is a separate God, Nabu, the rival of Merodach 9 (as the Logos Hermes for the Greeks is the rival of Apollo), but later bracketed with him as his son 10—we may reasonably suppose that the Mithraic adaptation is late.

Of the deity thus shaped through many centuries, by many forces, it seems warrantable to say that his cult was normally in an ethically advanced stage, relatively to contemporary worships. In remote times, doubtless, he was worshipped with human sacrifices, like most other Gods: the Persian practice of sacrificing on a "high place" 11 tells of early connection with the Asiatic cult of pyramid-altar-temples, which spread to Polynesia, North America, Syria,

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and Greece, always in connection with sacrifices of men and children. Of such sacrifice there is no trustworthy trace in the historic period, however, and at no time do we find any trace in his legend of sexual complications. Unlike Agni, unlike Krishna and Apollo and Adonis and Herakles and Dionysos and Attis, he has no amours; and his conjunction with Anaitis or Anahid, as we shall see, seems to have been rather a mystical blending of sexes than a conjugal union. His mate appears to have been primarily Ardivisura, a Goddess of a sacred well, and of the earth-waters generally, later blended with the Semitic Anahid, a Goddess of fruitfulness. 1 At times he may have been licentiously worshipped, 2 as Anaitis was; 3 but in the Avesta and in the developed cultus so far as we know it he is always shown as making for righteousness. 4

Theologically, he exists both in abstract and in symbol. Originally, he is simply the animised sun: later, according to the universal law of religious evolution, he becomes a spirit apart from the sun but symbolised by it, the sun being worshipped in his name, and he being the God who sustains it: nay, an actual subordinate Sun-God takes his place, even in the Rig Veda. 5 But since in Persian, as we have seen, his name (Mihr) actually means the sun, 6 he can never be dissociated from it; and as the same word also means "the friend," the light being the friend of man, 7 and seems to connote love or amity, 8 a moral distinction inevitably attaches to him in a stage of thought in which words have an incalculable significance. He is not a mere benefactor to be flattered. As the sun in Nature can both succour and slay; as Apollo, called by Pindar 9 the most friendly to men of all the Gods, is also the Destroyer, so the Persians sang: "Thou, O Mithra, art both bad and good to nations"—and to men, 10 At length, the dualist theory holding its ground as a theological system, as it always will while

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men personify the energies of the universe, Mithra comes to occupy a singular position as between the two great powers of good and evil, Ormazd and Ahriman (the Ahura-Mazda and Angra-Mainyu of Mazdeism)—being actually named the Mediator1 and figuring to the devout eye as a humane and beneficent God, nearer to man 2 than the Great Spirit of Good, a Saviour, a Redeemer, eternally young, son of the Most High, 3 and preserver of mankind from the Evil One. In brief, he is a pagan Christ.

Much has been written as to whether Mithra was worshipped as the sun, or as the creator and sustainer of the sun. There can be no reasonable doubt that the two ideas existed, and were often blended. 4 We may depend upon it that for the weak and ignorant minds, which could conceive a personal God only under the form of a man or animal, or both combined, the perpetual pageant of the sun was a help and not a hindrance to elevation of thought. We can understand, too, how even to the thinkers, who sought to distinguish between matter and essence, and reckoned the sun only a part of the material universe, the great orb should yet be the very symbol of life and splendour and immortality, as well as the chosen seat of the deity who ruled mankind; and that it should be the viewless spirit of the sun who, in their thought, proclaimed to man the oracle of the Soul of the Universe: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty." 5


288:4 Cp. Prof. Cumont, Textes et Monuments, i, 11; Haug, as cited, pp. 290-2.

288:5 The Zendavesta, i, Introd. p. lx-lxi.

289:1 Mihir Yasht, i, in vol. ii of M. Darmesteter's translation of the Zendavesta (vol. 23 of Sacred Books" series). Cp. the Khôrshed Nyâyis in same vol. p. 351.

289:2 Cp. West, note to trans. of Dinkard, S. B. E. vol. 37, B. viii, c. 44, 8.

289:3 On the bearing of early Mithraism on conduct see in particular the Mihir Yasht, xxix, pronounced by M. Darmesteter "one of the most important in the Avesta, as a short account of the social constitution and morals of Zoroastrian Iran" (ii, 149, n).

289:4 Id. ii, 158, 351.

289:5 Darmesteter's Zendavesta, ii, 155: Mihir Yasht, xxxii, 137-8.

290:1 A. Holtzmann, Agni nach den Vorstellungen des Mahâbhârata, 1878, pp. 7, 28, 30, 35. See also above, p. 219. As to the slow rise of Brahmanic ethic from the primary idea of quid pro quo in the relations of Gods and men, cp. M. Baudry's essay De l’interpretation mythologique in the Revue Germanique. Fév. i, 1868, p. 36; and Tiele, Outlines of the Hist. of Religion, Eng. tr. p. 113. Of course the dove may have been, as in other ancient cults, a symbol of sex instinct. On that view, Agni combined the characters of Mars and Venus.

290:2 A. Hillebrandt confidently asserts (Vedische Mythologie, Kl. Ausg. 1910, p. 121) that the Ahura who is bracketed with Mithra is another than Ahuramazda. For this arbitrary decision he offers no argument beyond a reference to the fact that in India Mithra was bracketed with Varuna.

290:3 Darmesteter, Zendavesta, i, Introd, pp. xxxi, xxxii (xxxiii in second ed.).

291:1 The Religions of the Ancient World, p. 105, citing the same author's Ancient Monarchies, iv, 334; Flandin, Voyage en Perse, pls. 164 bis, 166, 173-6; Loftus, Chaldæa and Susiana, p. 579; and Sir H. Rawlinson's Cuneiform Inscriptions, i, 342. See also Plutarch, Alexander, 30; Quintus Curtius, De gestis Alex., iv, 48, 12; Xenophon, Œconom. iv, 24; Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, i, 506, 542; and Windischmann, Mithra, ein Beitrag zur Mythengeschichte des Orients, in Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlands, Bd. i, p. 55.

291:2 King, The Gnostics and their Remains, p. 116; Ælian, Var. Hist. i, 33; Xenophon, Cyrop. vii, 5, § 53; Plutarch, Artaxerxes, 4.

291:3 See Cumont, Textes et Monuments, ii, 76-82, for a list of all the names combining that of Mithra, from the earliest times down to the Christian era. They include Mitraphernes, Mitrobates, Mithropaustes, Homamithres, Ithamitres, Siromitres, Mitrogathes, Aspamitree, Mitraios, Mitrostes, Rheomithres, Mithrobouzanes, Mithrines, Sisymithres, Mithracenes, etc., and the name Mithrēs is very common.

291:4 Id. i, 8, 231. Justi (Geschichte des alten Persiens, 1879, p. 93) sees Egyptian as well as Chaldean elements in the cult.

291:5 Cumont, pp. 10-11, 17, 231. Justi says no: "not under Darius or the Achamenidæ, but first under the Parthians, who here set up an Arsacide dynasty" (p. 95).

291:6 Meyer, Gesch. des Alterthums, i, 542.

291:7 Moses of Chorene, l. ii, c. 83 (cited by Ioselian, Hist. of Georgian Ch.). Ahuramazda seems to have been widely worshipped in the Georgian district, and often in connection with another deity whose name is preserved by the old historians as Zaden, probably = Satan = Ahriman. Ioselian, Hist. of the Georgian Church, Eng. tr. pp. 20, 39, 67. Cp. Cumont, i, 16-20.

292:1 Haug, Essays on the Parsis, 3rd ed. pp. 12-13; Cumont, i, 19, 74 sq.; ii, 196, 212, 215, 216, 238.

292:2 Cumont, i, 83. citing Jensen, Die Kosmogonie der Babylonier, 1890, p. 9. Cp. Maspero, Hist. anc. des peuples de l’orient, 4e édit, p. 136.

292:3 Jastrow, Relig. of Bab. and Assyria, pp. 54, 140, 146.

292:4 Id. pp. 136, 276.

292:5 Id. p. 147.

292:6 Jastrow, Relig. of Bab. and Assyria, pp. 127, 631, 678, 681. Cp. the Hon. Emmeline E. Plunkett, Ancient Calendars and Constellations, 1903, pp. 58-59.

292:7 Jastrow, pp. 71-2. Cp. Code of Hammurabi, Epilogue.

292:8 Cumont, i, 231.

292:9 Jastrow, pp. 126-9, 240, 648, 679.

292:10 Id. pp. 127, 240, 648-9.

292:11 Strabo, xv, 3, § 13.

293:1 Justi, Gesch. der oriental. Völker im Altertum, pp. 398-9.

293:2 Athenæus (x, 45), citing Ctesias and Duris, tells that among the Persians the king was permitted to get drunk and dance on one day in the year only, the festival of Mithras (either Christmas-day or one of the days of the New Year festival in spring); no one else being allowed to get drunk or dance on that day.

293:3 Her worship being assimilated to that of Ishtar. Cumont, i, 231, n. Cp. Strabo, B. xi, end.

293:4 In a Roman inscription he is sanctus dominas, the holy Lord. Cumont, ii, 235.

293:5 "Sometimes a poet says that Savatri is Mitra, or that he at least performs the same work as Mitra. This Mitra is most frequently invoked in conjunction with Varuna. Both stand together on the same chariot." Max Müller, Hibbert Lectures, 2nd ed. p. 269.

293:6 Cp. Darmesteter, Introd. to Zendavesta, pp. liv, lxi; Von Bohlen, Das alte Indien, 1, 258; Sainte-Croix, Recherches, ii, 122, n.

293:7 Mitra literally means "a friend"; it is the light as friendly to man. Cp. Darmesteter, Ormazd et Ahriman, §9 59-61; Max Müller. Hibbert Lectures, 2nd ed. p. 268, note.

293:8 Wait, Jewish, Oriental, and Classical Antiquities. 1823, p. 194, citing the Berhan-ĭ Katteā. The name seems to have been the Persian equivalent of Eros. Hyde, De Vet. Persar. Relig. 1700, c. iv, p. 107.

293:9 Cp. Donaldson, Theatre of the Greeks, 7th ed. p. 23.

293:10 Mihir Yasht, viii, 29.

294:1 Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, c. 46; Julian, In regem solem, cc. 9, 10, 21. Lesser spirits, of course, were also held to exercise mediatorial functions, like the Christian Saints. "The Furuhers of the ancient Persians were intermediate agents between God and man, who presented earthly petitions to the throne of Ormuzd, being connected with the human soul and attendants on it." Wait, Jewish, Oriental, and Classical Antiquities, 1823, p. 88, citing the Berhan-ĭ Katteā. Cp. Spiegel, Avesta, Einleitung, p. 31. For the metaphysical development of the idea of the Sun-God as Mediator see Julian, In regem solem.

294:2 In the Persian mythology the first man and woman, Mashya and Mashyana, arise on Mithra's day in Mithra's (the seventh) month. (Spiegel, Erânische Alterthumskunde, 1, 503, 511.) In the Persian myth the pair are at first not only sinless but alike sexless (Bundahish, xv).

294:3 "Like all the Aryan religions, that of the ancient Persians admitted that Ahura Mazda was a husband and father." Cumont, Textes et Monuments, i, 137. M. Cumont need not have limited this characteristic to the Aryan systems; it is equally Semitic. But it is in the later stages of Mithraism that the Sonship of the God is stressed. Id. ii, 4-5.

294:4 Cp. Tiele, Egyptian Religion, p. 44, as to Osiris, and Hillebrandt, as cited above, p. 290, note, as to Mitra. One of the many proposed corrections of Gibbon by his commentators which are themselves errors is Guizot's note on ch. viii (Bohn ed. i, 255 to the effect that "Mithra was not the sun." Guizot founded on Anquetil, who, though a great pioneer, had not fully mastered the records.

294:5 Revelation, i, 8; xxi, 6; xxii, 13. A very ancient Pagan formula. See Pausanias, x, 12, as to the chant "Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus shall be"; and the phrase "God the beginning and the end," in Plato, Laws, iv, 7. Cp., in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" (ch. lxiv; Budge's trans. pp. 112, 116), the formula, "I am Yesterday, To-day, and To-morrow."

Next: § 5. The Process of Syncretism