Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, , at sacred-texts.com
AMONG the most ancient and most honored gods of Roman paganism was the Persian Mithra. He came to the empire out of a more remote oriental antiquity than did the Great Mother of the Gods. In the hymns of the Vedas, as in those of the Avesta, his name appeared; in the former as Mitra, in the latter as Mithra. To be sure his character was but dimly traced in the Vedas. Only a single fragment remains that was dedicated especially to him, and other references to him were quite incidental. Still, enough traits are preserved to make clear the resemblance of the Vedic deity to the Iranian Mithra. Fundamentally, he was the god of light, invoked together with Heaven under the name of Varuna, even as in the Persian system Mithra was associated with Ahura. Certain ethical qualities of his character are also distinguishable; for he was regarded as the upholder of truth and the enemy of error, even as Mithra was revered by the Persians. These traits of resemblance are sufficiently clear to make the primitive identity of the two deities quite certain and to push the origins of Mithraism far back into the unknown period when the ancestors of the Persians and the ancestors of the Hindus were living together.
In the Avesta the character of Mithra was depicted with special clarity, one of the longest of the yashts, the tenth, or Mihir Yasht, being dedicated to him. The qualities there ascribed to Mithra remained fairly constant through the later centuries of paganism, and are important to know for an appreciation of the ethical quality of this Persian religious system. In the Mihir Yasht, as in the Vedas, Mithra was represented as the genius of heavenly light, "who first of the heavenly gods reaches over the Hara, before the undying, swift-horsed sun; who foremost in a golden array, takes hold of the beautiful summits, and from thence looks over the abode of the Arvans with a beneficent eye!" He was not himself the sun, moon, or stars; he was more than they. He was the genius of celestial light who appeared before sunrise and at nightfall went over the earth after the setting of the sun and surveyed everything that is between the earth and the heavens. As the beneficent god of light, Mithra was the dispenser of physical blessings. His light fostered life and happiness and his heat made the earth fruitful. The usual epithet applied to him was "the lord of wide pastures," and he was the one who gave to man an abundance of material possessions, good health, and a numerous progeny.
But the Avestan thought of Mithra did not remain on the material level merely. It reached high ethical altitudes. Being the "ever waking, ever watchful" god, who with his "hundred ears and hundred eyes" constantly watched the world, Mithra naturally became the guardian of truth and the preserver of good faith. Throughout the Mihir Yasht he was referred to as the "truth-speaking, undeceived god, to whom nobody must lie." Ahura Mazda himself was represented as laying this solemn injunction on Zarathustra. "Break not the contract (mithrem), O Spitama! neither the one which you have entered into with one of the unfaithful nor the one you have entered into with one of the faithful who is one of your own faith. For Mithra stands for both the faithful and the unfaithful." To those who obeyed this injunction, and otherwise honored Mithra, the god guaranteed his protection. He was the divinity "whom the poor man, who follows the good law, when wronged and deprived of his rights invokes for help with hands uplifted .... and to him with whom Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, has been satisfied, he comes with help."'
The wrath of Mithra was as terrible as his blessings were rich and full; for he was the implacable foe of all evil who, "never sleeping wakefully maintains the creation of Mazda." He was even engaged in ceaseless combat with the spirits of evil, and to wicked men he brought endless troubles. "To whom shall I in my might impart sickness and death?" he asks. "To whom shall I impart poverty and sterility? Of whom shall I at one stroke cut off the offspring?" The response is:
"Thou bringest down terror upon the bodies of men who lie to Mithra; thou takest away the strength from their arms, being angry and all powerful; thou takest the swiftness from their feet, the eyesight from their eyes, the hearing from their ears." "On whatever side there is one who has lied unto Mithra, on that side Mithra stands forth, angry and offended, and his wrath is slow to relent."
This character of militant virtue was one of the prime attributes of Mithra.
The god's championship of righteousness and opposition to evil was not confined to this life merely. It extended to the future, and became the guaranty of safety and security to the faithful ones in the world to come. Their prayer for protection was a prayer that included the future as well as the present. "Mayest thou keep us in both worlds, O Mithra, lord of wide pastures! both in this material world and in the world of the spirit, from the fiend Death, from the fiend Aeshma, from the fiendish hordes that lift up the spear of havoc and from the onsets of Aeshma." This clear conception of Mithra, the god of light and truth and the opponent of evil, was one of Persia's best gifts to the religious life of the Roman Empire.
From the time of his admission to the Zoroastrian pantheon until his last fatal battle with Christianity itself, Mithra was a conquering deity. His cult from the first became increasingly popular and powerful and his own position is the object of popular devotion, once established, remained a dominating one. It is true the price he paid for admission to the Avestan system was that of submission to Ahura Mazda. Like other ancient nature divinities, he was classified as one of the creatures of Mazda, one of the Yazatas. But he quickly became the most powerful of them all and was distinguished as the intermediary between Ahura, the god of light, and Ahriman, the god of darkness. It was here that Plutarch located him in his exposition of Persian dualism. Later, however, Mithra compIetely overshadowed with his glorious and vivid personality the vague figure of Ahura himself. Proofs might be multiplied showing what a conspicuous role Mithra played in the religion of the Persian empire. He was peculiarly the god of the "great kings," their special guardian, whom they invoked on the eve of great undertakings and by whom they swore their mighty oaths. He was the one Iranian god who made a real impression on the literature of classical Greece--an eloquent testimony to the exalted position he occupied in the religious system of Persia.
With the extension of Persian power by military conquest there followed a great accession of influence to Mithraism. It was during the days of the Achaemenides that Mithra finally acquired the character of lord of armies, which remained a predominant trait throughout the rest of his history. Where Persian arms met with success, there Mithra became known. The whole great Persian empire was missionary territory for his official clergy, the Magi. In Babylon they became superior to the indigenious priests. Yet victorious Mithraism felt the effects of its Chaldean conquest and ever thereafter bore the marks of its victory. In Chaldaea Mithraism learned astrology and after that it continued as an astronomical religion. Under the early Achaemenides the Magi penetrated Asia Minor also, and there the indigenous religions paled before Mithraism. The Magi captured Pontus and Cappadocia, where Strabo knew of their sanctuaries. They penetrated Galatia and Phrygia and remained there in considerable numbers. Lydia, apparently, received its contingent of Magi, for Pausanias, writing in the period of the Antonines, told of a Mithraic sanctuary attributed to Cyrus where the descendants of these early missionaries still chanted their hymns in a barbarian tongue. While the provinces of Asia Minor were yet under the suzerainty of the "great kings," Mithraism became firmly established there.
It might be expected that a religion so closely identified with the fortunes of the Persian empire would share in the downfall of the kingdom of Darius. Exactly the opposite occurred during the Hellenistic period. The Diadochi were quite as friendly to Mithraism as ever the satraps of the great king had been. In Pontus, Cappadocia, Armenia, and Commagene, dynasties were established which represented the Achaemenian tradition in opposition to the Hellenizing tendencies of the Greek kings of Pergamum and Antioch. These Anatolian rulers made Mithra the special object of their loyalty, and the very personal character of their devotion was attested by the frequency with which the name "Mithridates" occurred in their families. For the prosperity of Mithraism in Asia Minor during the Hellenistic period, however, royal patronage was not chiefly responsible. Rather it was the ready adaptation that Mithraism itself made to the new religious demands of the times. It threw off its official and markedly Persian character and began to operate as a private cult brotherhood rather than as a racial or nationalistic religion. Men were admitted to its membership, not by the fact of birth into a particular racial or national group, but by special initiation. Like the contemporary cults of Cybele and Demeter, it addressed its appeal to men as individuals. The downfall of the Persian empire could not check the growth of such a brotherhood, any more than the political misfortune of proud Athens could lessen the attractiveness of the Eleusinian mysteries. Apparently, too, under the stimulus of religious competition, the followers of Mithra began to engage in unusually vigorous propaganda on behalf of their cult.
It was during the Hellenistic period and in Asia Minor that Mithraism made its final modifications and took on the definitive form it maintained through the imperial period. In the uplands of central Asia Minor, the god entered into an alliance with Cybele that became famous in Roman times. Quite naturally, too, he was associated with Helius, the sun-god. An external but altogether notable result of the contact of Mithraism with Hellenism was the sudden tendency to represent the god in human form. Here in Asia Minor, toward the beginning of the second century B.C. Mithraism learned from a Pergamene sculptor to chisel that remarkably impressive group of "Mithra Tauroctonus," which thereafter stood like an altar-piece in the apse of the god's cave-sanctuaries. Thus the vague personification of oriental imagination came to assume a precise and definite form altogether appealing to occidental taste. The very fact of standardized representation had its influence in a more precise definition of the character of Mithra. All of these accretions of art and legend tended to make the Iranian religion of Mithra a Hellenized product. To adopt M. Cumont's vivid figure, above the Mazdean substratum and the thick sediment of Chaldean astrology and the rich alluvial deposits of beliefs local in Minor, there grew up a luxuriant vegetation of Hellenistic art that partly concealed the original nature of Mithraism. This Hellenistic overgrowth is a picturesque, if indirect, testimony to the popularity of Mithraism in Asia Minor during the three centuries preceding the Chistian era.
By the beginning of the Christian centuries the domain of Mithra extended from the Indus in the east to the Euxine on the north. In the plateau countries of Asia Minor, he was strongly intrenched. One of the great champions of Mithraism at this time was Mithridates Eupator (120-63 B.C.), a foeman worthy of the best generals Rome could send against him. The Magi were his supporters, and M. Cumont conjectures that if he had realized his ambitious schemes Mithraism would have become the official religion of his great Asian empire. It is probable, however, that his defeat by Pompey was not an unrelieved disaster for Mithraism since it opened the way for a further dissemination of the cult through the agency of refugees, slaves, and prisoners.
About this time Mithraism came prominently to Roman notice in another section of Asia Minor--in the land of Paul's birth--as the religion of the Cilician pirates. These bold freebooters dared dispute naval supremacy with the Romans and audaciously plundered the most venerable shrines around the eastern Mediterranean. In all this they may well have considered themselves the champions of the invincible god whose help, they were assured, would win them the victory. It was Pompey who forcibly suppressed the champions of Mithra (66 B.C.). In Paul's native land, however, the religion of Mithra still continued to be influential, and in Tarsus he was worshiped for centuries thereafter.
For Mithra these military disasters in Asia Minor signalized the beginning of his conquest of Italy and the Empire. According to Plutarch it was when the Cilician pirates were defeated that the Romans first became acquainted with the rites of Mithra. In speaking of the pirates and their religion, Plutarch affirmed, "The secret rites of Mithra continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them." It is altogether probable, then, that the defeat of the pirates resulted in bringing to Rome from Asia Minor slaves and prisoners who were devotees of Mithra. In this very humble manner the mysteries of the Persian god were first brought to the capital city of the Mediterranean world. The successful conclusion of the Mithridatic Wars undoubtedly brought about a similar immigration of slaves, captives, and traders, as well.
Later, when Rome began to consolidate her eastern conquests, the way was cleared for the establishment of more intimate relations between Italy and Anatolia. Under Tiberius, Cappadocia was incorporated as part of the empire. Western Pontus was added under Nero. Once these official administrative relations were established with the very provinces where Mithraism was popular, it was inevitable that Mithraic influences should increasingly be felt in Rome and Italy. By the middle of the first century A.D. the mysteries were so highly esteemed by the Romans that the emperor himself was initiated by the Magi who came with Tiridates to Rome. Plutarch, a little later, referred to the rites of Mithraism as a familiar religious phenomenon and spoke with approval of the Mithraic view of life. Thus, Mithraism, which during the Hellenistic period was little known outside the Orient, had, by the middle of the first century A.D., become familiar to Rome and Italy. A full century before Paul of Tarsus brought the Christian gospel to the imperial city, his fellow-countrymen of Cilicia had introduced the gospel of Mithra there; and by the time the Christian apostle came to Rome, the religion of the Iranian god was already well known in the city.
Just as Asia Minor in the last century B.C. sent out the emissaries who won Rome for Mithra, so in the next century Asia Minor sent out the missionaries who won many of the frontier provinces of the Empire as well. In this case the missionaries were soldiers recruited from the upland provinces of Asia Minor; from Pontus, Cappadocia, Commagene, and Lesser Amnenia--again the districts in which the cult of Mithra was well established. Even before these sections were annexed to the empire, while they were still in the position of client kingdoms, Rome made use of them as recruiting grounds. During the Parthian Wars under Claudius and Nero, large oriental contingents were added to the Roman armies, for the most part as auxiliaries, but also as legionaries. It has been suggested that the soldiers of the Third Legion who paid homage to the rising sun at the battle of Betriacum (A.D. 69) were devotees of Mithra. Thus already in the first century A.D. was begun that unique movement of religious propaganda in the ranks of the Roman army which was so significant for the later dissemination of the Persian religion.
For Mithraism soldiers were the best kind of missionaries. Mithra himself had been for long centuries the god of battles, and his cult was an exclusively masculine one. Soldiers, on the other hand, were pious to the point of being superstitious. The dangers to which they were constantly exposed caused them to seek the assurances of a religion that would guarantee safety for the present and salvation for the future. The oriental devotees of the militant god Mithra, who had found these assurances in his religion, were not in the least exclusive. They gladly welcomed and initiated their companions in arms as members of their cult brotherhoods. True to the camaraderie of soldier life, these neophytes in turn became missionaries for Mithra; and so the movement grew. Introduced into the Roman army early in the first century by semi-barbarian recruits from Asia Minor, Mithraism spread like an epidemic through the ranks of the legions. Henceforth it was the religion of the Roman army and its chief centers of influence were the garrison towns of the frontier provinces. In notable instances the founding of Mithraic shrines and other military dedications in northern centers like Aquincum and Carnuntum can be traced back directly to soldiers who came from first-century Anatolia. During the next two centuries Mithraism spread to the farthest limits of the Empire. Mithraic monuments were scattered from the Euxine Sea to the mountains of Scotland, and from the banks of the Rhine, to the Sahara Desert. Viewing a map showing this diffusion of the Mithraism, one is ready to credit the famous dictum of Renan that "if Christianity had been arrested in its growth by some mortal malady, the world itself would have become Mithraistic."
To one section of the Empire only did Mithra remain a stranger. That was to Greece. Within the confines of Hellas, a single late inscription has been found at the Piraeus and a solitary bas-relief at Patros. To the Greeks their old memories of Persian wars Mithraism was too oriental to make an appeal. Notwithstanding this failure in Greece, however, and quite apart from later success, it is important to remember that in the first century Mithraism was not only well established in Asia Minor, but it had also already begun a lively missionary campaign in the heart of Italy and in the ranks of the Roman army. Hence, in summarizing the religious influences which were significant in the Graeco-Roman world when Christianity had its initial development, considerable account must be taken of Mithraism.
It is therefore important to examine the practices of this cult in order to determine whether or not they were expressive of a radical type of religious experience properly characterized as a new birth, such as many other contemporary cults fostered by their initiation ceremonies. In making this search, one is much handicapped by a lack of materials with which to work. The mysteries of Mithra, like the other private cults, were strictly secret and the liturgy, which for the faithful was such an important part of their religion, has all but completely disappeared. Scarcely a trace is left of either hymn or prayer, and only scattered hints may be gathered here and there as to the character of the ceremonies included in the Mithraic rites. Most of these hints, even, come to us from prejudiced Christian sources. Mithraic monuments, however, are comparatively abundant, and from these one may derive indirect suggestions concerning the cult ritual. At least it is possible to gather from the remains of Mithraea a general impression of the effectiveness of Mithraic rites.
The sanctuaries of Mithra were eaves in the mountains or underground crypts, recalling the primeval cave in which the god performed the life-giving act of slaying the cosmic bull. These chapels were always small, and when the brotherhood grew beyond a convenient size--a hundred members at the maximum--other Mithraea were established. In small shrines such as these, the impressions made on the mind of the neophyte were bound to be very intimate and personal. It was a place, too, for mystical religious experience, where the devotee could feel himself close to divinity. In the limited nave of the chapel stood venerated images: the torch-bearers, the mysterious lion-headed Cronus, and the "Petrogenes Mithra" rising from the generative rock. In the center of the apse stood the group of "Tauroctonus Mithra," a pathetic tableau, but the central scene of a great salvation drama. Around it were grouped in small panels other scenes from the life of Mithra, from which M. Cumont has ably reconstructed various episodes in the cosmic myth of the Iranian god. The ceiling was decorated to represent the heavens, and astronomical symbols were frequent elsewhere in the decorations. The crypt as a whole was arranged like a microcosm wherein the individual neophyte had an opportunity to come close to things divine. Such were the physical surroundings amid which the candidates for initiation participated in the Mithraic sacraments. Though the sanctuaries were small, they were effectively arranged and lighted to make the initiatory rites highly impressive.
Although we know almost nothing of Mithraic initiation, one important fact is clear, it was no simple affair. There were various degrees of initiation which admitted the candidates to different grades of privilege. A text of Jerome, together with various inscriptions, preserves the number and names of the different degrees. They were seven, each one called a sacramentum, ranging from the lowest, or Raven (corax), grade to the highest grade, that of the Father (pater). Between were the degrees known as Occult (cryphius), Soldier (miles), Lion (leo), Persian (Perses), and Courier of the Sun (heliodromus). Apparently, in the process of initiation, the celebrants donned sacred masks appropriate to the particular degree conferred; the Occult wore a veil, the Persian a cap, while the Soldier, Raven, and Lion each wore disguises that can easily be imagined. Such masked figures appear now and then on Mithraic bas-reliefs. A Christian of the fourth century wrote in ridicule of these practices: "Some flap their wings like birds, imitating the cry of crows; others growl like lions; in such manner are they that are called wise basely travestied." To be understood adequately, these Mithraic disguises must be interpreted as the late survivals of very primitive religious practices. Their genesis goes back to the time when deity was conceived and represented under the form of animals typically. Then the worshiper, in order to identify himself with his god, took on the animal name and semblance of the deity; he put on the skin of his lion-god and was himself called a "Lion." So the Raven and Lion masks of Roman Mithraism were but tardy survivals of the animal skins that were donned in primitive times that the devotee might realistically charge himself with the power of his god.
Other peculiar ceremonies also were performed at each grade of initiation. For example, Tertullian told of the rite of the crown, enacted during the sacrament of the Soldier. At the sword's point a crown was offered the candidate "as though in mimicry of martyrdom," Tertullian said. But the initiate was taught to push it aside with his hand and affirm, "Mithra is my crown!" Thereafter he never wore a crown or garland, not even at banquets or at military triumphs, and whenever a crown was offered him he refused it saying, "It belongs to my god." This was taken as proof that he was a soldier of Mithra. Tertullian himself was the son of a centurion. He was quite familiar with this ceremony and spoke of it with rare appreciation. Was his father, then, a soldier of Mithra as well as of Rome?
The same author, in another passage, told of a rite of sealing which appropriately formed a part of the initiation of the Mithraic soldier. Just as the recruits to the army had a mark burned in their flesh before they were admitted to the oath, so the Mithraic initiate as a part of his sacramentum had a sign burned on his forehead. "Thus Mithra marks on the forehead his own soldiers," said Tertullian. In this way the solemn vow of the initiate as a soldier of Mithra was as indelibly impressed upon his mind is the seal was on his forehead. Of the ceremonials connected with the other grades of initiation we know almost nothing.
In addition to the rites that may be related to a particular sacramentum there were certain other ceremonials of real importance which cannot be definitely localized in the Mithraic ritual. One such group of requirements were in the nature of preliminary austerities intended to test the moral courage and physical endurance of the candidates. As early as the period of the Avesta, such preparations were prescribed for the worship of Mithra. In the Mihir Yasht it was recorded:
"Zarathustra asked him: 'O Ahura Mazda! How shall the faithfull man drink the libations cleanly prepared, which if he does and he offers them to Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, Mithra will be pleased with him and without anger?' Ahura Mazda answered: 'Let them wash their bodies three days and three nights: Let them undergo thirty strokes for the sacrifice and prayer to Mithra, the lord of wide pastures.'"
These antique prescriptions were probably the origin of the trials imposed on candidates in Roman Mithraism. Neither the number nor the precise nature of the various ordeals through which the initiates were made to pass are known, though later writers, the Christian Fathers especially, delighted to elaborate them in detail and to give their number very explicitly. Gregory of Nazianzen, for example, spoke indefinitely of "tortures" which the initiates had to endure; his commentator Nonnus, however, enlarged on the theme by telling of "eighty punishments" by water, fire, frost, hunger, thirst, and prolonged journeyings, all arranged in a series of increasing severity. According to another statement, the initiate was blindfolded, his hands were tied with the entrails of chickens, he was made to leap over a ditch filled with water and, finally, the act was brought to an end when a "liberator" appeared who cut the disgusting bonds with a sword. So far as specific detail is concerned, all this gratuitous information need not be taken seriously. Certainly the Mithraic shrines were so small and so limited in equipment that such ordeals could scarcely be more than a matter of pretence. At one point in his commentary, however, Nonnus was doubtless correct--the tests in general were intended to develop a Stoic apathy and to cultivate a steady control of the emotions.
Distinctive among the preliminary Mithraic tests was a simulated murder. Apparently, there was performed by the initiate, more likely on the initiate, the feint of a murder. The historian Lampridius in telling of the mad freaks of the emperor Commodus said that during the Mithraic ceremonies "he polluted the rites by a real murder where a certain thing was to be done for the sake of inspiring terror." Probably at the time the emperor was officiating as a Pater at one of the lower degrees of initiation, perhaps that of the Soldier, when he committed the cruel deed. Doubtless in its origin the simulated murder of Mithraism was real--if not a human sacrifice, at least a mortal combat. Later it became a less dangerous test and finally a mere liturgical fiction. The wholesale charges of murder which were made against the devotees of Mithra by late and hostile writers are as little deserving of credence as similar charges that were made against the Christians.
A simulation of death in the Mithraic mysteries, however, is perfectly intelligible. Death was the logical preliminary to a renewal of life; hence the pretence of death by the neophyte was a perfectly natural antecedent to the regenerative experiences of baptism and sacramental communion that followed in the Mithraic ritual. That this was precisely the interpretation put upon this bit of liturgical fiction is clearly suggested by a passage in Tertullian. In discussing the Mithraic rites of baptism and communion, the Christian lawyer affirmed: "Mithra there brings in the symbol of a resurrection." This striking use of the phrase imago ressurrectionis is doubly significant. It proves that a simulation of death was an integral part of Mithraic ritual, and also that it was but antecedent to an experience of regeneration.
Various ceremonies figured in the Mithraic liturgy which were calculated to induce this process of spiritual renewal. Among the most important were the ablutions which from the earliest times were prominent in the cult of Mithra. The ceremony consisted either of sprinkling as with holy water, or of complete immersion as in Isiac practice. In the grottoes of the Persian god, water was always at hand, and in certain instances, at Ostia, for example, vaults have been found which may have served the purpose of immersion. Mithraic baptism, like the later Christian rite, promised purification from guilt and the washing away of sins. Christian Fathers noted the similarity and were quick to charge the Devil with plagiarism at this point. Tertullian declared:
"The Devil, whose business is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances of the divine sacraments in the mysteries of idols. He himself baptizes some, that is to say, his believers and followers; he promises forgiveness of sins in the sacred fount, and thus initiates them into the religion of Mithra."
Again, and this time for the sake of rebuttal, the Christian lawyer stated the case for pagan baptism in the following words: "Well, but the nations, who are strangers to all understanding of spiritual powers ascribe to their idols the imbuing of waters with the self-same efficacy (as Christian baptism)." Then he countered with the argument, "But they cheat themselves with waters that are widowed. For washing is the channel through which they are initiated into the sacred rites of some notorious Isis or Mithra." From Tertullian's ex parte statement of the case, even, it is clear that the neophyte came out of the baptism of Mithra with his conscience lightened from the weight of previous guilt. The waters of baptism were believed to wash away the defilements of the old life, and to induce a spiritual renewal.
Provision was also made in the Mithraic ritual for nourishing the new spiritual life in a realistic manner. At initiation, honey was applied to the hands and tongue of the candidate. According to Porphyry, this was done in both the Lion and the Persian grades of initiation. As Porphyry said explicitly, honey was supposed to be a powerful preservative; hence it would serve to keep the initiate from the blemish of sin. In the Mithraic liturgy, however, it was believed to have a positive efficacy also, as its application to the tongue of the candidate suggests. Placed in the mouth of the neophyte, it was supposed to communicate to him some marvelous virtue. It was customary to put honey into the mouths of new-born children. So in Mithraism the spiritually new-born were fed with honey. So later, in primitive Christianity and among the Marcionites, the baptized were given a drink of milk mingled with honey. Furthermore, in Mithraic thought honey was a celestial substance produced under the influence of the moon where, according to their cosmic myth, the seed of the divine bull that Mithra slew at the beginning of time bad been gathered. By its origin, then, honey was a powerful agent for nourishing the new spiritual life of the initiate. It was charged with mystical properties. It was the food of the gods themselves, and its absorption by the initiate endowed him with divine powers.
Another means whereby the new divine life was nourished in the neophyte was by participation in a sacrament of eating and drinking. Mithraic theology traced this nourishment also back to the bull of their cosmic myth; for from the blood of the moribund victim of Mithra sprang the vine, which supplied the votaries of the god with the life-giving wine of their sacrament. Their communion included bread as well as wine. In the famous bas-relief from Konjica, Bosnia, there is a most interesting representation of a Mithraic communion. Before two reclinging communicants stands a tripod supporting tiny loaves of bread, each distinctly marked with a cross. One of the standing figures in the group, easily identified as a Persian, presents the communicants with a drinking cup. Other participants in this ceremony are clearly Mithraic initiates of different orders. This bas-relief shows in an unusually circumstantial manner that the Persian mystery religion, like the Christian, had its sacramental communion with its bread and wine.
The likenesses between the two rites did not fail to impress the Christian apologists who once more accused the demons of thievery. Justin Martyr, in speaking of the Christian Eucharist, asserted, "The wicked demons have imitated this in the mysteries of Mithra, commanding the same thing to be done. For that bread and a cup of water are placed before the initiate with certain incantations in these mysteries, you either know or can learn." The similarities between the two communions, Mithraic and Christian, are indeed striking. Both were memorial services, celebrated in remembrance of the divine hero of the cult; for Mithra at the close of his redemptive career and just before his ascension to heaven, partook of a last supper with Helius and other companions of his labors. On the back of the great pivoted bas-relief at Hedderheim this original last supper was depicted. Whenever the initiates participated in the Mithraic communion, they recalled this mythical love-feast.
But it meant more to them than this. From their communion they gained assurance for the future. Supernatural effects were expected from the assimilation of the consecrated elements. From the bread and wine they gained not only vigor of body and wisdom of mind but also the power to combat evil spirits and a divine substance that assured them of the boon of immortality. Thus the sacramental collation served to nourish the new life of the neophyte in a realistic way.
The sequence of these few ritual remains--the preliminary trials and the simulated death of the candidate, the regenerative bath of baptism, and finally the nourishing of the new life by means of honey and the consecrated elements of the Mithraic communion--serves to show that the idea of death and rebirth to a new life figured prominently in the ritual of the Persian god. If additional evidence is needed, it is found in the fragments of what was probably in its original state a Mithraic liturgy now preserved in an Egyptian magical papyrus dating from about A.D. 300 Professor Albrecht Dieterich, who published this as Eine Mithrasliturgie, is of the opinion that the liturgical parts, which consist of invocations, go back to a Mithraic ritual of the final grade of initiation in use perhaps as early is the first century. The rest of the Paris papyrus is composed of magical formulas and other occult matter. Notwithstanding all this extraneous material, it is not unlikely that the author of this religio-magical cento had access to a genuine Mithraic ritual of which he made considerable use for his own purposes. The figure of the death and rebirth of the initiate comes prominently to view at several points in this liturgical text, and it becomes quite apparent that initiation into the mysteries of Mithra was comprehensively thought of in this figurative way.
The opening prayer of the liturgy begins:
"O! first genesis of my genesis! First beginning of my beginning! First spirit of the spirit that is within me! .... May it please thee to translate me, who am trammelled by the nature which underlies me, to an immortal genesis .... that I may be born again in spirit; that I may be initiated, and the sacred Spirit may breathe on me!"
At different points in the liturgy, this spiritual genesis is specifically contrasted with natural birth. "Though I was born a mortal from a mortal mother . . . . having been sanctified by sacred ceremonies I am about to gaze with immortal eyes on the immortal aeon." Again the contrast between the natural birth and the spiritual rebirth is even more clearly brought out in the words addressed to the supreme god, "I, a man . . . . begotten in mortal womb by human seed, and today begotten again by thee, a man who has been called from so many thousands to immortality according to the plan of a god wonderful in his goodness, strives and longs to adore thee according to his human ability." The concluding words of the liturgy mark a high point of ecstatic expression and form a fitting conclusion for a Mithraic ritual. "O Lord! Having been born again, I pass away, being exalted the while. Having been exalted, I die! Coming into being by life-begetting birth and freed unto death, I go the way as thou hast ordered, as thou hast established the law and ordained the sacrament."
Few if any ancient texts contain a clearer appreciation of the radical religious experience of rebirth to immortal life than does this magical papyrus with its fragments of a Mithraic liturgy. By itself alone it is startling testimony to the prominence of the idea in gentile religious circles. Taken in conjunction with the few well attested ritual acts of Mithraism which were obviously intended to symbolize and induce an experience of spiritual rebirth, this evidence becomes quite convincing. It is certain that the devotees of Mithra viewed initiation as a rebirth to immortality.
Finally, it is relevant to note the quality of the new life induced by the Mithraic ritual, particularly in its ethical aspects. From its very inception the cult of Mithra was characterized by soundly moral elements. If etymology counts for anything, it would seem that from early times the conception of Mithra himself was an ethical one, for his name was related to a common noun which in the Sanskrit meant "friend" or "friendship" and in Avestan "compact." As a result of Mithra's alliance with Zoroastrianism, his ethical character became strongly accentuated and he was clearly defined as the special guardian of truth. Zoroastrianism, with its apotheosis of moral dualism, gave Mithra his permanent function as the champion of right and the leader of the forces of good against the powers of evil and darkness. Obviously, it would be an unhistorical procedure to identify the ethics of first-century Mithraism with Avestan morality. On the other hand, except in the case of Armenian Mithraism, there is no evidence that the cult's remarkable career of conquest resulted in a deterioration of its ethical quality. Mithraism was heir to the high ethics of ancient Persia and it guarded this heritage well.
Still when it comes to a discussion of the moral elements of the Mithraic life, the treatment has to be general, for sheer lack of specific evidence. There were certain "commandments" that had to be carefully observed by the initiate in order to be sure of the salvation that Mithra offered, and these were obligatory on all, the high and the lowly, the senator and the slave alike. What the specific precepts were is unknown.
Nevertheless, certain characteristic features of the Mithraic ideal stand out with clarity. Primarily, it was an ideal of perfect purity. The ritual prescribed repeated ablutions and purifications and these were intended to wash away the stains of sin. The very conformity to ritual practice at this point showed a sensitiveness to moral turpitude. The Mithraic life was also one of steady self-control and of asceticism even. Rigorous fasts and abstinences were enjoined, and continence was encouraged as a special virtue. More broadly, the resistance of all sensuality was a mark of the Mithraist. Chiefly, however, the Mithraic life was characterized by militant virtue. The good of this religion dwelt in action, and a premium was placed on the energetic virtues rather than on gentler qualities. Even its mysticism was a matter of active co-operation between Mithra and his soldiers, and this kind of mysticism discouraged dependence and stimulated individual effort. So virile and aggressive was this religion that sometimes it seemed cruel and heartless in the rigor of its discipline. In the largest terms, life for the Mithraist was a prolonged struggle, a part of the great cosmic warfare of good against evil, right against wrong.
In this war the initiate was assured of victory, for he had the help of an invincible god who was hailed in Persian as nabarze, in Greek as aniketos, and in Latin as invinctus and insuperabilis. Mithra was an unfailing help to mortals in their struggles, the protector of holiness, the defender of truth, and the intrepid antagonist of all wickedness. The very presence of the god who was eternally vigilant and forever young was the assurance of success. Just as in the physical realm he gave victory in human warfare, so in the moral realm he gave his victory over evil instincts, the spirit of falsehood, and the temptations of the flesh. So far as the present was concerned, therefore, the Mithraic life was one of assured victory in the contest with evil.
As to the future, the initiate into Mithraism was guaranteed a righteous judgment and a happy immortality. He felt secure about the judgment, for Mithra, the guardian of truth, would preside at the great assize which determined his eternal destiny. According to the picture suggested by the Emperor Julian, Mithra was also the guide who assisted the soul on its heavenly journey and, finally, like a fond father, welcomed the soul to its heavenly home. The seven grades of Mithraic initiation had a very direct relation to the future fate of the soul; for the heavens themselves were divided into seven spheres, each presided over by a different planet. Through these spheres lay the journey of the soul up to the heaven of the fixed stars. According to Celsus, this was represented in the Mithraic shrines by a sort of ladder containing eight gates, one above the other, the gates being of different metals. From the different Mithraic sacraments the initiate learned the appropriate formulas which would admit him to the various spheres. As the soul passed from one sphere to another, it cast aside various earthly impurities and desires like different garments and finally, purified of all vice, it entered the empyrean, there to enjoy eternal bliss. In addition to this general hope of immortality, more or less in character, certain Mithraic circles cherished a vivid eschatology involving a return of Mithra to the earth, a bodily resurrection of the dead, the destruction of the wicked, and the rejuvenation of the universe. Whatever the particular form of the hope, the Mithraic initiate felt a calm assurance regarding the future.
This study of Mithraism has shown that the cult of the Iranian god held out to its devotees the hope of a blessed immortality and the assurance of victory in the struggle of life, on the basis of certain initiatory rites which were viewed as marking the beginning of a new kind of existence. The preliminary tests, the simulated death, the purification of baptism, the feeding of the initiate with honey, and the participation in a sacramental communion all served to stress the idea that initiation was a rebirth to a new life. Mithraic sacraments were both the symbols and the effective causes of this spiritual regeneration.