Mithras’ Mysteries

Mithras was originally a Persian deity, but by the Roman period the mysteries of Mithras were especially associated with soldiers in the Roman army.  Archeologists have discovered many examples of the meeting-places of these associations of soldiers, particularly on the edges of the empire where military activity was most common, including Britain.  In fact, one ancient mithraeum (as such buildings are called) was unearthed right in the middle of London during construction on a modern sky-scraper.  Archeologists have, thankfully, preserved and restored the structure.  More rustic, perhaps, is the mithraeum that can be seen in northern England, where soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s wall could meet together regularly for their activities in the second century.

The most important symbol associated with these mysteries of Mithras was the slaying of the bull (or tauroctony), and monuments, statues, or reliefs of the scene have often been found in excavated mithraea.  There were certain standard elements in the iconography (picture-language) of these monuments.  Mithras, dressed in Persian garb, is pictured holding back the head of the bull by the nostrils as he slays the bull with a knife in his right hand (often in the setting of cave), as in the statue now in the British Museum (pictured above).  Usually perched on Mithras’ shoulder is a raven (one of the seven stages of initiation).  As blood flows from the ailing victim, a dog laps it up and a snake accompanies the dog.  This is not the only thing that the bull has to worry about, as a scorpion makes its way to sting the bull’s testicles.  Quite frequently, a lion (another stage of initiation) and a bowl (crater) are depicted in the scene, as are the two figures known as Cautopates and Cautes, whose torches symbolize the setting and rising of the sun.  In fact, many of the symbols in this scene seem to have held cosmological or astrological significance for the initiates in Mithras’ mysteries.  The scene can be understood as a map of the sky, so to speak, including constellations such as Taurus (bull), Canus Major/Minor (dog), Scorpio (scorpion), and Leo (lion).

The cosmological dimensions of these mysteries is further confirmed by the meeting-place (mithraeum) itself.  It seems that initiates thought of the building as an imitation cave which replicated the universe itself.  Sometimes the signs of the zodiac and symbols of the universe were portrayed on the ceiling or on the benches which lined both sides of the building.  Along with this meaning of the mysteries came seven main stages of initiation which likely correspond to the soul’s journey through seven levels of the universe, returning to the soul’s origin.  The Christian author Origen happens to make mention of this significance and the seven stages:  “For in the [mysteries of Mithras] there is a symbol of the two orbits in heaven, the one being that of the fixed stars and the other assigned to the [seven] planets, and of the soul’s passage through these.  The symbol is this.  There is a ladder with seven gates and at its top an eighth gate” (Meyer 1987:209).  Archeological evidence confirms the seven stages as: Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun, and Father.  Initiates would go through special procedures to make their way up to the status of “Father,” who would, naturally, be considered a well-respected leader of the association.