Mithraism

The Mithraic religion was one of the most powerful sun cults in human history. It took shape in Persia around the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E., spread into Babylonia and Hellenistic Greece, and subsequently into ancient Rome in the second century C.E. All this time it was developing and changing as it came into contact with other religions and new influences. Mithra, a solar deity, became identified in Babylonia with the Babylonians' own ancient sun god, Shamash; in Greece with Helios, the sun, and the god Apollo; and in the Roman empire with Sol Invictus, the unconquered, or unconquerable, sun.

In the Roman world, Mithraism had only modest support at first, as one of a number of "mystery" cults from the east. In the second century C.E., however, it became popular among soldiers and spread rapidly with the legions to the far corners of the empire. Numerous temples, monuments, and inscriptions are found from Asia Minor in the east to Britain in the west. Mithraic temples are characterized by altars containing a scene depicting Mithras ritually sacrificing a bull. From this primordial act, according to the Mithraic belief, sprang life on earth.

By the late second century, Mithraism had attracted the support not only of a range of government officials but even of the emperor himself. Commodus, emperor from c.e. 180 to 192, was initiated into the sect, and a frieze at Ephesus shows the sun taking his father, Marcus Aurelius, up to heaven in a chariot escorted by the moon and stars. Commodus was the first of a succession of Roman emperors for whom popular worship of the sun as the supreme body in the heavens affirmed their own earthly powers. (An interesting comparison can be made here with the role of sun worship in Inca society.) Caracalla, emperor from c.e. 212 to 217, seems to have portrayed himself as the son of the sun god; and the mother of Aurelian (c.e. 270-275) was believed, at least by some, to be a priestess of the sun. The culmination came in c.e. 274, when, under Aurelian, the cult of Sol Invictus became the official state religion of the empire.

Following Constantine's conversion to Christianity early in the fourth century, Christianity began its inexorable rise and pagan alternatives declined. Mithraism certainly presented the most serious pagan challenge to early Christianity, and the bitter rivalries that ensued were sometimes overcome by a process of acculturation—subsuming pagan rituals within Christian ones. This process is most obvious in its lasting effect on the Christian calendar. It is no coincidence, for example, that the date of Christ's nativity was fixed as December 25, the date the Romans believed to be the winter solstice, and which had been established by Aurelian in c.e. 274 as the feast of the birth of the unconquered sun (Natalis Solis Invicti). Neither is it any coincidence that the Christian holy day is named Sunday.

The conflict between early Christianity and astral religions such as Mithraism also hardened Christian attitudes toward astrology.

See also:

Astrology; Christianization of "Pagan" Festivals.

Island of the Sun; Roman Astronomy and Astrology.

Solstices.

References and further reading

Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. by Thomas J. McCormack. New York: Dover, 1956.

Hawkes, Jacquetta. Man and the Sun, 181-204. London: Cresset Press, 1962.

McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, 41-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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