History of religion

Religions of Antiquity VII: The Mithras Mystery

(Published in GralsWelt 39/2006)

During excavations of Roman antiquities, Mithraea, i.e. places of worship dedicated to Mithras, were found in many places, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland[i]. For example, you can visit a Mithras grotto on the Hallberg near Saarbrücken; the Saalburg near Bad Homburg (Taunus) and the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg have reconstructed mithraea.

"If a deadly disease had stopped Christianity in its growth, the world would have become a believer in Mithras." With these words the French historian of religion described Renan (1823–1892) an ancient religion which is remarkable in many respects and which may also have shaped Christianity: the Mithras cult.

But relatively little is known about the "Mithras cult" that was once widespread in the Roman Empire. Original writings of the Mithras communities have not survived, so that one has to rely on the statements of the apologists, i.e. on writers of the first centuries AD, who wanted to defend Christianity against pagan cults and to prove the superiority of Christianity.

Further evidence came from excavations. The underground mithraea were destroyed by Christians, and churches were sometimes built over them. A typical example is the pilgrimage site of Monte San Angelo in Gargano (Italy). There is a cave church here that was suitable for a Mithras sanctuary[ii].

Occasionally such former Mithras cult sites were also filled up with rubbish and walled up - and thereby inadvertently preserved for posterity.

The Mithras cult was a particular nuisance to early Christians, more than other mystery religions, because it contained many "Christian" elements that the church would not admit to have been adopted from an older cult.

An oriental mystery religion

"Mysteries" are ancient secret cults that were particularly widespread from the 7th BC to the 4th century AD. Typical of these cults were a command of silence, through which details of the cult were kept secret, and the promise of salvation to the initiated. (1, p. 24).

Ancient Iranian and Indian myths from the 2nd millennium BC are entwined with the god Mithra. The name Mithra or Mitra supposedly had the meaning of "contract". So he belonged to a god who was supposed to guarantee good faith between people. Later, as Mithras, he became a fighter for good, finally the god of light, the heroic, invincible sun god, the fighter against evil and darkness.

Temporarily ousted as main god by the Zoroastrian Ahura Masda, Mithra was under Ataxerxes II. (405–385 BC) reintegrated into the cult of the Iranians.

The cult of Mithras, mixed with Zoroastrian and Greek ideas, developed into a mystery religion that reached Greece in the first century BC and then spread through the Roman Empire. There is much to suggest that the Mithras cult goes back to a founder personality. (6, p. 109). The mystery researcher Bruno Jakobs even suspects that the oriental god revealed himself to an unknown donor, who then formed a new myth and laid down the rites and temple architecture. (3, p. 54). Accordingly, it would be a revelation religion.

According to mythology, Mithras was born from a rock in a cave. The rock symbolizes the earth, the ceiling of the cave the sky, so that it is considered to be the mediator between heaven and earth. In pictures, Mithras is shown as a "bull killer".

In the Roman Empire in the first centuries AD, this heroic figure became the god of the legionaries, but also of the civil servants, i.e. the upper class.

The killing of the primal bull

The (ritual) killing of the primordial bull is a very old motif, perhaps dating back to the Neolithic, i.e. the Neolithic, which can be interpreted in many ways. In the Mithras cult, this killing, the so-called taurobolia, was of central importance.

So did the Mithras cult include the ritual killing of a bull? Was the baptism of an initiator, a person to be initiated, as some suspect, with bull's blood? The ritual meal after the bull was killed would then be an echo of ancient “hunter's meals” after a successful hunt, which should bring the participants of the hunting party closer together and ritually reconcile the souls of the killed animals. However, the excavated places of worship are hardly suitable for slaughtering such a large animal.

Modern researchers therefore seek astronomical or astrological explanations.

One assumption sees the taurobolia as a symbol for the transition from the Taurus Age to the Age of Pisces. The Greek astronomer Hipparchus discovered in the second century BC that the earth's axis wobbles and that the position of the vernal equinox changes accordingly to the fixed star sky; a discovery that was perhaps no less sensational at the time than the theory of sixteen centuries later Copernicus. For, from the perspective of the ancients, only a tremendous power could shift the entire starry sky, the most powerful of all gods, the “bullslayer” depicted in the sky in the constellation Perseus. This moved the world axis and started a new age. This unknown god was given the name Mithras for mysterious reasons. He was a god of light, a god of sun, also the highest god, already similar to the Christian god. (3, p. 22 f.).

Another interpretation sees the overcoming of winter in the bull-killing. The dying Taurus would then be the disappearance of the constellation Taurus, which is clearly visible in the winter sky and which becomes invisible at the beginning of spring due to the greater length of the day. Mithras would then be the conqueror of winter, the ruler over the seasons, the victorious god of light and god of fertility, agriculture and nutrition (3, p. 53).

The degrees of initiation

In mystery religions, an initiate had to go through various degrees of initiation. Among the followers of the hierarchically structured Mithras cult, there were seven degrees: raven, fiance, soldier, lion, Persian, sun runner, father (priest). The "sun runner" (Heliodromus) is identical to the "morning star" (Lucifer) and the "torchbearer" Cautes, and he runs ahead of the sun god Sol (Helios) on his path. The “father” is also referred to as the “eagle” “who rises to see God” (2, p. 54). Here one finds a parallel to Christianity, which in the Middle Ages assigned the evangelist John the eagle because "the spirit flies highest in it".

Planets were assigned to the respective degree of initiation as protective gods (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Moon, Sun, Saturn). There was apparently no special priesthood, and the cult in the numerous Mithraea was presumably led by members of the highest degree.

The initiate probably had to familiarize himself with secrets that corresponded to the degree of his initiation and undergo tests: fire, water, courage and fasting tests, of which there are only vague ideas. The initiate was then allowed to wear clothing and a mask (with an animal's head?) Appropriate for his initiation stage.

Small, underground places of worship

Since Mithras was born in a cave, the Mithraea were small, underground places of worship, usually for little more than 40 men. They were rectangular, the ceilings often adorned with stars, signs of the zodiac and astronomical symbols. Usually at the front (where the altar is in churches) there was a cult image in each mithraium. In the center of the cult image, Mithras wrestles a bull and kills it with a short sword. Mithras wears Persian clothing with trousers, a cloak (tunic) and a cone-shaped cap with the tip falling forward, called a Phrygian cap[iii]. On both sides are the "dadophores" (torchbearers) Cautes (Lucifer) and Cautopates (Hesperus)[iv]which symbolize the rising or setting sun, birth and death, day and night, or hope or suffering. Between them is Mithras, who connects the beginning and the end. Cautes (mostly) carries a raised torch as a symbol for the rising sun, and Cautopates a lowered torch, which symbolizes the descending sun. Such cult images can be found in the entire distribution area of the Mithras cult, from Syria to Britain, from North Africa to Germania.

The parishioners met regularly for devotional hours, in which the higher grades were served a cultic meal with wine (blood of the bull?) And bread. In addition to the cult meal, there were friendship meals at which meat was also eaten.

The sacred element of water could not be missing in any mithraium. Mithraea often stood near springs whose water was collected in basins.

The denied parallels to the Christian cult

The Mithras cult shows a striking number of parallels to the Christian cult. Hans Head writes: “The reason for the hatred of the Christians for Mithras was obvious: There was already a religion that had many truths of faith that were considered specifically Christian even before the Christian era, and whose cult images were therefore 'exemplary' for the Christian world of images . That is why the Christians tried, on the one hand, to calm their insecure believers with the somewhat anachronistic hypothesis that 'Satan' had already 'betrayed' the 'Gentiles' Christian salvation wisdom before the birth of Christ, but on the other hand they also sought it, all of them to wipe out visible traces of the Mithras cult, which they - almost - would have succeeded " (4, p. 9).

For his believers, Mithras was the great God, unknown to outsiders, to whom many attributes already applied that are also ascribed to Christ:

- Mithras was considered the god of light and savior, who promised the believers eternal life.

- He was the fighter against evil and darkness.

- His birthday was celebrated on December 25th.

- Sunday as a Christian holiday (in contrast to the Jewish Sabbath) is also the day of the sun god Sol - Helios, to whom Mithras was equated.

- The trinity Mithras, Cautes, Cautopates reminds of the Christian trinity.[v]

- Between Cautes and Cautopatesbetween the beginning and the end Mithras, which connects heaven and earth, in the biblical sense: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Rev. 21, 13)

In the cultic meal of the Mithras believers, Christians saw a blasphemous blasphemy of the Lord's Supper.

To this day, however, Christian images have handed down themes from the Mithras cult. Hans Koepf: "This is how a Mithras who drove down the bull became the knight George, who kills a dragon as a symbol of 'evil' - of course a misinterpretation of the sacrifice of the bull" (4, p. 75).

St. Nicholas (allegedly Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, today's Turkey) appears as 'Santa Claus' often on horseback, dressed in the Mithras colors white (water) and red (fire) and wearing the typical Mithras hat. (4, p. 68).[vi]

The snake that coils around a tree in paradise, a symbol for Lucifer, can also be found in the Mithras cult, in which it symbolized the “passage of time”.[vii]

Almost any number of similarities between the Mithras cult and Christianity can be found, which suggest that Christian cults are composed of earlier traditions and doctrines, that Christianity in this sense is an eclectic religion.

Unfortunately, we hardly know anything about the Mithreian liturgy, the course of the temple celebrations and the spoken texts. Found around 1900 Albrecht Dieterich (2) a text in an old magic book which he interpreted as the Mithras liturgy. However, this only surviving liturgy of an ancient mystery cult is controversial.

In the third century the Mithras cult was widespread, but after the promotion of Christianity by Constantine the Great (280–337), fanatical Christians destroyed almost everything that was reminiscent of this cult from the year 312 on. The Mithras believers were undoed that Licinius (308–324) in the battle for the imperial throne under the sign of the sun god in the decisive battle against Constantine was drawn. (1, p. 177). With the army of Licinius also the Mithras associated with the sun was defeated against Christ, and the rejection of the Mithras cult and the persecution of his followers became a political concept.

Admittedly sat down Julian the Apostate (Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor from 361 to 363) a few more years for religious freedom and the revival of the old cults; but under the on Julian The following emperors began an intense and bloody persecution of all pagan religions, which also led to the complete extermination of the Mithras cult. (1, p. 177).

The following reasons probably contributed to the rapid decline of the Mithras religion:

- It was a mystery religion whose teachings were secret. From initiation level to initiation level (difficult?) Samples were required, which probably put some off.

- Since women were excluded, the Mithras cult could not become a popular religion.

- Apparently the various Mithraea were independent, not combined into a large organization, so that they could not offer any unified resistance to the onslaught of Christianity.

- The Mithras cult was an elite religion. Its base was too narrow to hold out against Christianity, which stood up for the poor and slaves and took in women who, however, were soon (if not from the beginning) excluded from the priesthood.

Continued "Religions of Antiquity" VIII.


(1) Clauss Manfred, Mithras Kult und Mysterien, CH Beck, Munich 1990.

(2) Dieterich Albrecht, Eine Mithras-Liturgie, Teubner, Stuttgart 1966.

(3) Jacobs Bruno, The Origin and Development of the Roman Mithras Mysteries, Universitätsverlag Konstanz, 1999.

(4) Koepf Hans, Mithras or Christ, Jan Thorbecke, Sigmaringen 1987.

(5) Prónay Alexander v., Mithras and the secret cults of the Romans, Aurum, Freiburg 1989.

(6) Merkelbach Reinhold, Mithras, Hain, Meisenheim, 1984.

(7) Wamser Ludwig, The Romans between the Alps and the North Sea, Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2000.





(13) (with images.

(14) htm,


eitzmann / limesstrasse / dadophoren.htm,


[i] Cf. Winfried Katholing, Holy Places of the Gentiles and Heretics, Aschaffenburg 1999,

 [ii] According to the origin legend, a bull played an important role in the discovery of the cave, which suggests echoes of the Mithras cult image.,

 [iii] Phrygia = historical landscape on the western plateau of Anatolia. The cap was worn by Phrygians and Persians, and Roman slaves received it as a symbol of release. During the French Revolution it became a symbol of freedom as a Jacobin cap.

 [iv] Here Lucifer is the morning star, Hesperus the evening star.

 [v] Religious scholars know a number of "divine triads" which correspond to the three divisions according to the Indo-European order. For example, early Roman Jupiter (legal supremacy), Mars (martial power), Quirinus (fertility and economic prosperity); from the 4th century (presumably under Etruscan influence) then Jupiter, Juno, Minerva (cf. Elsas, Christoph “Religionsgeschichte Europäische”, Wissensch. Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2002). With the Egyptians Sobek, Hathor, Chons. In India Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, etc.

 [vi] According to other sources, "Santa Claus" was originally dressed in white and did not get his red skirt until the 20th century from a Coca-Cola advertising artist.

 [vii] Hans Koepf writes about this: “A Mithric symbol of time is the crowned serpent, which rolls around a tree trunk and is supposed to symbolize the 'course of times'. In terms of motif, this snake already appears on ancient reliefs on which the deeds of Heracles are depicted (...) In complete misunderstanding of the original context, the Christians made this snake the symbolic figure of Satan, who in the so-called fall of man around the 'tree of knowledge' winds. (4, p. 44).