I
NTRODUCTION
 to MITHRAISM

 

 

 Mithras,
 British Museum


MITHRAISM. Mithras was a god associated with light and the sanctity of oaths in India and Iran; he became the object of a distinctive cult in the Roman Empire prob. c.AD 100. The mysteries of Mithras were celebrated by small groups of male initiates in underground temples, lined on either side by benches used for ritual meals, and dominated by a representation of the god slaying the primal bull.

  

Mithra, Dura Europas

Mithraeum, Ostia Antica

Over 100 Mithraic caves, as the temples were called, have been found in the W. Roman Empire, esp. near the frontiers, where they were frequented by soldiers, but also at Rome (e.g. under the churches of San Clemente and Santa Prisca), Ostia, and elsewhere.

    There were seven ascending grades of initiation, corresponding to the seven planetary spheres; neophytes passed through tests of endurance and took an oath before admission to each level. Modern knowledge of the significance of the rites is heavily dependent upon the philosopher Porphyry and on the hostile accounts of Christians. Tertullian (de praescriptione haereticorum, 40) denounced the mysteries as a parody, of the Christian sacraments, but generally the Fathers directed less polemic against the private cult of Mithras than against the traditional public cults of the pagan world.

    Mithraism appears to have died out in the 4th cent.; some Mithraea, e.g. at Rome (Jerome, ep. 107. 2) and three on Hadrian’s Wall seem to have been closed by Christian action. Earlier scholarship emphasized the affinities of Mithraism with Zoroastrianism; some recent work (R. L. Gordon) has presented it as a product of its Roman context.


F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystéres de Mithra (2 vols., Brussels, 1896–9); M. J. Vermaseren (ed.), Corpus Inscriptionum et Mounumentorum Religionis Mithriacae (2 vols., The Hague, 1956–60). F. Cumont, Les Mystères de Mithra (Brussels, 1900; 3rd edn., 1913; Eng. tr., 1903); an abridgement of Cumont’s earlier work with additional bibl. A. Dieterich, Eine Mithraliturgie (1903; 2nd edn., 1910). R.[-A.] Turcan, Mithras Platonicus: Recherches sur l’Hellénisation Philiosophique de Mithra (Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain, 47; Leiden, 1975); id., Mithra et le Mithriacisme (1981); R. Merkelbach, Mithras (Königstein i. Ts., 1984). D. Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (New York and Oxford, 1989). M. Clauss, Mithras: Kult und Mysterien (Munich [1990]; Eng. tr., Edinburgh, 2000). A. D. Nock, ‘The Genius of Mithraism’ Journal of Roman Studies, 27 (1937), pp. 108–13, repr. in Nock’s Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, ed. Z. Stewart, I (Oxford, 1972), pp. 452–8; R. L. Gordon, ‘Mithraism and Roman Society’, Religion, 2 (1972), pp. 92–121, repr. in his Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World (Aldershot, 1996), No. 3; see also Nos. 4–9. M. J. Vermaseren and C. C. van Essen, The Excauations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome (Leiden, 1965). J. R. Hinnells (ed.), Studies in Mithraism: papers associated with the Mithraic Panel organized on the occasion of the XVIth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Rome, 1990 (Storia delle Religioni, 9; Rome, 1994), with details of earlier conferences on Mithraic Studies. E. Wüst in PW 15 (pt. 2; 1932), cols. 2131–55; K. Prümm, SJ, in Dict. Bibl., Suppl. 6 (1960), cols. 136–51, s.v. ‘Mystères, VIII. Le Culte de Mithra’.


Adapted from E.A. Livingstone, Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford, 2000
 

 


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