In classical Rome, religio involved a legal obligation tied to membership in the community which consisted in symbolically honoring those values that formed the basis of coexistence, and therefore the basic political nexus. Abandoning public worship of those values meant abandoning a pillar of social cohesion, and was considered negligence, a word which, as religio, derived from religare (relate, assemble, link, associate).
This idea of the gods as allegories of stylized social values, so different from the concept of “faith” as understood today by the influence of monotheism, was not born in a day. Roman religio first evolved from an original animist cult based on genius (the immanent spirit of individuals, communities and events, as opposed to animus, which meant “mood” or “opinion”), Manes (ancestors), and numens (spirits of places and later of natural phenomena), to a peasant religion with specialized gods.
Upon the consolidation of an urban society, some gods, like Vesta, evolved to express fundamental concepts of political life (such as inside/outside), and in the end, the allegorical deifications like Fides, Virtus, Liberalitas, etc., appear. All these gods lack a mythology in the Greek sense: they don’t have a set of stories and narratives that articulate a sacred biography. The Roman gods always oscillate between the immanence of the numen and the allegorical stylization of the deified virtues.
And the interesting thing is that the Republican polytheism had identified the gods with allegories of social values that supported the foundations of the state (in part also to conveniently reduce to allegories the superstitios that were most dangerous for coexistence, almost all of them coming from the East, like the cults of Apis and Ceres at some point, and then the cults of Isis and even Judaism), turning public ritual (the religio) into a ceremoniousness that furthered social cohesion.
However, as the contact with other cultures grew, and the need to integrate different beliefs and forms of worship into a common and diverse system arose, the Roman religio had the wisdom to establish equivalences and parallels, adopting and merging stories of the different gods that it absorbed into a literature that was seen as allegorical, and that even allowed upfront invention if it was useful for political positioning or coexistence (as Virgil and his Aeneid). So Cicero writes in “On the Laws,”
It is also convenient to deify human virtues as Intelligence, Pietas, Virtus, and Fides. In Rome, all these virtues have officially consecrated temples, so that those who possess them (and certainly, people of good faith have them) believe that in this way the gods are installed in their spirits.
To fully understand this quote from Cicero one must interpret, of course, those same virtues in their original context. Piety in Roman terms, pietas, is a feeling of respect and duty towards those groups that are shared and loved: family, motherland, etc. The faith that it speaks of is the virtue of fides, i.e., the “commitment to one’s word,” because “faithful” still didn’t mean someone submissive to a creed or faith, but someone you could trust because they honored their commitments. And virtus meant self improvement and courage in the pursuit of the public interest or the public good.
The divinities, the gods of the late Republican period and the early Empire are actually allegorical archetypes. And if deifying Augustus’ genius was equivalent to recognizing in his work the epitome of good governance, the installation of which Cicero speaks is nothing else than individual inspiration through social ceremonies of positivie values that further coexistence and the survival of the community. The Pax Deorum is actually the ceremonial tool (sacra publica) for shoring up social peace.
What was the Roman religio then? Fundamentally, it was a social ritual for the transmission and permanent celebration of the values that were considered the foundation of social cohesion.
Mithra, the crisis of republican values, and the end of religio
When the Republican system starts decomposing, a number of cults arise in which the center of the story are not the social attitudes, but the individual ones. Uplifting biographies and autobiographies become popular, growing sectors of the population look at initiatory cults and oriental gods as food for an introspection that was originally alien to Roman traditions.
Instead of the cosmological interpretations, pertinent to its Persian origins, the cycle of Mithra as it evolved in the early centuries of the Christian era should be read as part of the “return to community” that followed the perceived failure of the imperial system to restore Republican values.
The Roman Mithraic cycle is especially interesting precisely because it elaborates, on the cosmogony of an earlier Persian god, a moral tale protagonized for the first by a human being characterized as an ethical and sovereign being. The ideas of intelligence, abundance and liberty appear for the first time in their contemporary form (The republican Libertas was not a moral liberty, it was a public liberty) and linked through a moral reflection in which doubt and decision are placed in a superior plane to that of destiny or the will of the gods.
The relationship between the cult of Mithra — specially popular among the legions and the cosmopolitan merchants — with the decay of Roman society is evident. The Roman Mithra is not a god-man, but a generic man who earns his own space among the gods, producing abundance for all. This generic and human character is underlined by the idea that the cycle itself has an end, with the intuition of a similar new cycle.
The Mithraic cycle
Mithra was born of a rock that becomes alive. In some versions, a snake breaks the rock allowing Mithra to come out. In his hand, the earth’s globe takes shape. The birth of a single person — and we will see that Mithra actually symbolizes every person — accompanied only by that which represents Nature. He is born with a torch (foculum, small flame), intelligence, and a Phrygian cap. The Phrygian cap was the symbol given at the time for slaves when they were freed. That is, Mithras, being born, receives freedom and intelligence from nature. Saturn (cultivated Nature) also gives him a gladius, a short sword, an instrument of struggle.
From there, stories differ in the number of adventures and their purpose, probably responding to different local cultural needs. But they still come together in five stories: the miracle of the rock, Tauroctony, submission of the Sun, the banquet, and finally, his solar ascension.
The “miracle of the rock”, in which Mithra makes water flow from a rock firing a stone at its center, is very similar to later metaphores on the use of instruments of force and precision. It represents the ability to meet the necessary with decisiveness and intelligence, with strength and control.
The Tauroctony starts when Mithra is visited by a raven, the messenger of Helios (Sun), Mercury (Commerce), etc… The Crow entrusted him with a mission and presents itself as fatum, as fate decided by the gods.
And Mithra doubts.
He doesn’t know whether he should obey Helios’ order or not. Why? Because he doesn’t understand its purpose. What the message commands is for him to find the original bull, a giant being from a former age, and to sacrifice his death in a cave chosen by Helios himself.
The bull represents the existing, the former, that which lives in the world in which Mithra is born… and his destiny is to kill it? The episode of the doubts and thoughts continues, clearly showing the sovereignty of Mithra to emphasize that it is him who chooses his own fate, that it is him, not the gods, who owns his own actions… even if he is deciding without completely knowing and understanding Helios’ wishes.
When Mithra finds the bull and confronts him, he discovers that he is not strong enough to defeat him. So he tries to ride it, tame it. But he cannot either. He finally decides to resist by gripping its horns… and after a grueling ride through the world, the strategy works: the bull falls to the ground, lifeless.
But the task does not end there. Mithra has to take the bull to the cave. Tired, with the monstrous bull on his shoulders, he embarks on a path that will be painful and exhausting. The image is very powerful: the weight of the old world, the weight of our own decisions, the resistance, now, to interrupting the task…
Finally, he reaches the cave. He is accompanied by Cautes (dawn) and Cautópates (dusk), who open the way for him with torches. He is distressed (and it is interesting how this feature is highlighted in the interpretations of tauroctony), he seeks Helios with his eyes, but finally, he cuts the bull’s jugular with the gladio that Saturn gave him. He expects that a torrent of blood would flow… but instead, edible grains and vegetables start coming out endlessly. A wolf (sometimes a dog), that symbolzes humanity, appears in the scene, enjoying the abundance created by Mithra through the sacrifice (in its literal sense of a meaningful act), which completes his task. There also appears a snake (knowledge/rejuvenation), and Mithra then understands the meaning of his mission. And in fact, he exceeds it: he cuts the bull’s genitals and domesticated species sprout from the wound. The constant flow of life and diversity is only interrupted when a scorpion (death) stings the bull’s testicles. Not even the creative act escapes that fate.
Then the raven brings a new message: Mithra has to carry the bull’s meat to the open countryside to prepare a banquet. A lion (the king of the world that has died), which had appeared, in some accounts, accompanying the wolf and the snake, helps him tear and carry the abundant food brought about by the slaughter.
When he arrives, Helios pays him homage, kneeling and placing his solar crown on Mithra’s head. Mithra is a god now. And he is god for creating a world that is now being born. The message is clear: if people meet their transformative destiny, life will in the end become — after doubt, struggle, effort, and a series of significant events — a celebration of abundance in which the gods themselves shall bow to the power of change.
After enjoying the banquet of abundance with all the other beings, Helios calls Mithra again. The dusk of his own world arrives. As the scorpion had already told us, Mithra — and his creation — even after becoming a god, will not disown death. In a chariot of fire, both soar into the sunset.
Characteristics of Mithraic celebrations
The ceremonies were practiced in mithraeums, many of them in caves near rivers or waterways. However most of thos that have survived were buildings annexed to houses or military facilities.
Their long and rectangular shape allowed for the celebration of ritual banquets. Sometimes, in addition to an atrium or lounge of lost steps, changing rooms and baths with swimming pools were incorporated (as in Mérida).
It appears that the right bank was associated with Cautes (dawn), and the left to Cautópates (dusk), and that the upper grades sat on the righ bank — as in the guild rituals — with the starry sky on which the sun travels represented on the roof of the mithraeums — many of them in caves-”sepeleums”.
The communities could not have more than 40 men. When that number was exceeded — in any case before reaching fifty — the community was divided into two (which brings us to Dunbar’s number). They met, at least, on Sundays (the day of the Sun). The ceremonies were probably preceded by ablutions and ritual baths. The remains of lamps with figures of Mithra and representations of Tauroctony that were lit from behind suggest that the ceremonies started with some sort of “lightning” of the space, passing then to a libatio or a toast that included a mark of wine on the forehead (as is still practiced in popular blessings), and a ritualized banquet handing over rolls and other foods representative of the wealth generated in the sacrifice of the bull. It is possible, given their appearance in initiations, that the meetings culminated with some kind of clash of hands or “chain of union.”
The story of the myth was transmitted through three levels (crow, lion, and father) which then would rise to seven after a series of initiations for each grade (sacramentum) aimed at exalting the serenity of the initiate .
Apparently, for what the frescoes in the mithraeum of Capua Vetere describe, in the first degree (the raven) the applicant was driven, blindfolded and naked, to the mithraeum. Upon entering the “cave” (speleum) he was made to kneel and his hands were tied behind his back, and the pater (with a Phrygian cap) showed him a torch so that he could sense the light through the blindfold. Presumably after several ritual questions, some kind of analogy was established with the crow (light bearer); according to the account of Ambrosiaster — an anti-Mithraic Christian propagandist — the community members waved their arms as if they were wings and chirped like crows, after which his liberator removed the blindfold.
Possibly, the fourth symbolic test was related to water and several testimonies of church fathers even suggest a ritual baptism. The parallel with the eighteenth-century Masonic initiations here is amazing (tests of fire and wind, “to give light,” the test of water…), specially considering that it was not until the late nineteenth century, with Cumont‘s seminal work, that Mithraism started to become minimally known. The incorporation of the caduceus among the symbols of the raven’s grade may indicate its ritual use at the end of the initiation to “resurrect” the initiant and take his vows. Some have seen in this possibility a history of the guilds’ flaming swords, but there is not a sufficient record to confirm this.
The ceremony — perhaps all meetings — were closed with a “grip” or “chain of hands” to the initiated, who turned into one of the syndexioi, a member of the community. Sindexioi literally means “joined by the hands,” creating a parallel with Helios’ recognition of Mithras after the bull’s banquet. One can only wonder at the possibility of this being a direct antecedent of the “granting peace to each other” of the Christian Mass, and the “binding chain” of Masons and scouts.
According to Cumont, the “crows” performed a similar function to apprentices in the guild celebrations: they attended the table, and served and looked after the speleum, but they did not take part in the ritual banquets of which they were spectators and waiters. Only “participant” grades (from “lion” up) were full members of the community. Here, Cumont points out, is where the association with the crow, the Sun’s servant, probably comes from.
We know little of the following two degrees, nimphus and miles, probably because they were segregated from the training of crows and belatedly incorporated into the liturgy. Cumont tells us, based on Christian propagandists of the time, that the nimphus wore a veil and were kept in a separate place in the temple, invisible to the other members. Displaying them (ostendere) constituted a solemn ceremony in itself, surely part of the initiation to the next grade. He also notes that in the ceremony of the miles the initiate were crowned with laurels. Laurels that the initiate should reject — as well as any award or public honor from then onwards — saying “they belong to my God.”
The transition to fourth grade, lion, meant a greater leap to the extent that it allowed them to take part of the ritual banquet. The “exalted” had to symbolically defeat death (just as the bull must die before reappearing as a lion in the banquet with the gods). So their ceremony included a symbolic death and rebirth, surely an interpreted story before the initiated himself, a typical solar initiatory ceremony which centuries later also appears in the “Scottish” ceremonies of transition into mastery.
Two other degrees sprung later on from the lion: perses and heliodromus, of which we know little because they most probably did not contribute core elements to the story, but certain spin-offs or marginalia stories, similarly to the eighteenth-century multiplication of degrees in the first symbolic lodges. What we do know is that the Phrygian cap was given to these two degrees and that they had to carry it in the temple.
The last degree, pater, seems to originally have been –similarly to the Greeks– reserved for the services director and community manager of the cult, but then evolved to a degree that united all those who had performed that task, or were, for having reached the stoic “apathy” — intimate serenity — ready to assume it.
Like any system of degrees in a community based exclusively on worship, one of the main attractions of the Mithraic communities resided in the cultivation of fraternity and the dissolution of external social hierarchies. Epigraphy shows how freed slaves often achieved not only the degree of lion or pater, but also occupied a central place in the social structure of the community. These were, at least from the time of Nero, legal civil partnerships, with its own parallel hierarchy of posts dedicated not only to care for and financially maintain the temple, the rituals, and public ceremonies (funerals, weddings, etc.), but also to the administration of mutual aid arrangements that covered some kind of basic insurance (of life, death, etc.).
Originality and significance of Mithraism
Most historians of religion start by noting the peculiarity that Mithraism represents in relation to both the religio and the mystery cults, both classical and Oriental, from which it differs starkly, as it simply lacks supernatural elements.
Because even though its relationship with Christianity has very often been highlighted, due to the fact that Christianity took from te mithraeums no small amount of symbols and even stories and celebrations, the Roman Mithra never intended to be a material, historical god who interacts with humans as the Persian god of the same name or his Jewish equivalent. In fact, it is not, –as all the gods of the religio– anything other than an allegory. The special thing is that it is not the allegory of a value, an activity or a social behavior, but of the life path and the potential present in every person.
Actually, Mithraism is purely and simply the first program of personal development we have a historical record of. Hence its importance and the constant reappearance of many of its elements in the main ceremmonial forms of the later real communites, especially in those of the medieval guilds, and as we have seen, those of the Masons of the Enlightenment.
Did the Mithreans survive in the Middle Ages?
The very logic of the functioning of the mithraeums, that were divided when the number of members — all male — approached fifty — which implies a relationship with the community that took into account Dunbar’s number –, its spread among merchants, artisans and markets — even more than within the legions, as is often emphasized — and the horizontal character of the cult, without a centralized priesthood structure — as the Jewish or that of the cult of Isis — or decentralized — as the Christian –, takes us over and over again to a world full of parallelisms which a few centuries later will lead to the birth of medieval guilds and Arts.
It would be tempting to try to build a thread that linked the latest manifestations of the religio in Western Rome that were tied to Mithraism, surely public in some regions until the sixth century, with the birth of the guilds. Since no few contemporary studies link the last remnants of the guild ceremmonies with Freemasonry and other enlightened and liberal organizations of the nineteenth century, it would not be too far fetched to argue for a continuity and certain influence that “somehow” would have served as a counterpoint to the idea of Christianity as the only foundation of Europe.
The sudden disappearance of the vibrant activity of Mithreans in most of Europe in the fourth century (although in some isolated places they persisted until the sixth century) allows some historians of Masonry to hypothesize about a transformation or fusion with some proto-guilds and brotherhoods, since as we have seen, every Mithraic temple was itself sustained by a civil partnership with its own properties and financial ndowment. It is also true that one of the keys of Mithraism is its assimilation into Mithras of the cult of fides — the value of contracts and the given word. This emphasis — also inpired in the Stoics – allowed it to win over artisans and merchants already in its very early stages, well before its development among the imperial armies. If to this we add the esoteric nature of the cult and its striking similarities with some guild ceremmonies between the tenth and seventeenth centuries, the idea of the ”transmutation” of Mithraism is suggestive. But even if the idea is certainly evocative and would provide freethinkers with a “myth of origin,” it has too many intractable temporal holes and is actually unnecessary.
The real question is why Mithraism arises, not how it relates to Christianity, to Stoicism or other later forms of community ceremony. And the answer has to do with the purpose of its vital proposal: the development of the “serenitas” of each person, of their personal sovereignty, and the conviction that this — and not the submission to a supposedly common good or dogma of any type — is the foundation on which the community itself becomes resilient.
Because we must remember that Mithraism was implanted — in fact, most probably was created — in the most Romanized provinces circa 150. This was the time when the imperial regime is proving not to be a solution to the decomposition of republican society and its values as it intended to be, but a catalyzer of such decay. That is, a time in which it no longer suffices to extoll collective values, and where many begin to find a material base for them beyond the political system, in the very real community, and in the ethos that is built for it.
What were those first Mithraeans, with their symbols, ceremonies, banquets and the myth of abundance looking for? To purely and simply empower their communities, to give them a symbolic model from which to build the story of an interesting life in a decaying environment.
Mithra and Christianity
There is a tendency to emphasize the apparent similarities between Mithraism and Christianity. But the similarity in forms and rituals actually conceal a radical opposition. Death, strictly speaking, does not exist for the Christian, who celebrates it because only after it will they encounter God and will really be able to take care of their own. For Christianity, death is the way to true life, and life, as Mother Teresa said, “a bad night in a bad inn.”
In the myth of Mithra death is present from the same moment in which abundance appears in the form of a scorpion that definitely kills the bull by stopping the flood of species flowing from his wound. Mithra has a concrete life to create abundance for his community. He doubts, suffers, makes the sacrifice of the bull, kills an entire age with it, he reaches and creates abundance for others… and for that he becomes recognized as a god. Even Helios, the sun, the greatest creator of abundance, surrenders to his feet for this. But after the banquet he shall die, regarldess of how divine he is. Death is there, infinitely terrible. there is nothing behind it. Ash, glory in the last glimmer of the Sun’s charriot. And then it starts all over again. It’s your turn.
Of Mithra will only remain the genius, the ideal of created abundance and its consequences. Mithra is us. Death, in Mithraism, generates no meaning. The meaning is in what each one does, in our lives. And in nothing else. Death is nothingness and leads nowhere. If Mithra had chosen not to make the sacrifice, his life would have been different, meaningless to others, it would not have been divine, perhaps not even remembered. In Mithraism, the meaning of life consists on generating abundance (infinity) in a finite time. To move forward putting, as our friend Juan Hernández said, the full force of the entire trip on each step.
This is already hinted at in the “miracle of the rock,” one of the stories of Mithra’s pre-Tauroctony period. Mithra is thirsty, creeps over the fields. Builds a bow and an arrow. Shoots a rock. The arrow penetrates its center, and water starts flowing. The bow combines the intelligence of invention, the precision of aiming, and the force of tensioning. The three virtues of the first Mithraic grades. Their result is a way out of scarcity, of the empire of necessity, symbolized by thirst. But not abundance.
Abundance is something else. It requires sacrifice, making the other, the bull, “sacred”. Something that becomes complex when the bull is that against which Mithra rebels against, the old world out of which Mithra himself was born. Only through the slaughter of the old world, which is also the sacrifice of everything he knows, Mithra is able to create real abundance, abundance for others — represented by the wolf — who will feed on the diversity that springs out of power’s wound at sunset. An old world which, incidentally, reappears, magnificent, as a lion that helps Mithra in transporting the remains, once freed from his own cycle of power.
This cannot be any more different that the sacrifice of the Christ. A Christ that allows the old world to sacrifice him and therefore also renounces to recover the best of it. Who discovers that he was always God, not as result of action, but from an inexorable nature. Whose pain is evident, direct, bleeding, whose only doubt arises from the feeling that the Father abandoned him.
Mithra, born from a rock, hesitates to nail the gladio delivered by Saturn, father of the gods, and hesitates at the idea of sacrificing the bull — the reigning world –, it hurts him to do it, he will seek with his eyes the crow who brought him the idea from the Sun. But he overcomes his doubts by becoming the protagonist, carrying out the significant act himself, symbolically transforming the bull into a lion. Nothing is farther from Christ the victim, passive and suffering recipient of a violence that he forgives but does not elude for his loved ones, a community that since then, according to the Christian story, he will accompany in a long era of martyrdom and persecution.
The long cycle of Mithra
The cultural footprint of Mithraism beyond the anecdotal is undeniable (the celebration of December 25, the miters of bishops, the numbers of guild degrees, the spatial planning and the benches in Masonic temples, or the popularity of Phrygian caps among nineteenth century liberals). Mithraism was linked for almost two centuries to a social environment of Stoic ideas — if we follow the ideas of some historians, it may even have been its “mass-market version” — and was in great part the first popularizer of an ethic of personal responsibility, serenity, and cosmopolitanism that was reluctant towards the supernatural, contrary to slavery, and uplifting for the moral individual in the community.
Beyond its message, its very form, closer to a “personal development program” than a mystery cult in the style of the cult of Isis or Eleusis, certainly had a cultural continuity — even if not organizational — which contributed to the systems for the transmission of knowledge and values born in Europe, from the guilds to the first groups of thinkers who would later rise as the first scientific societies, and the first forms of contemporary political parties.
It is from this perspective that the cycle of Mithra deserves much more attention. If Christianism gave Europe stories, taboos, and values that remain hegemonic, Mithraism was the cohesive myth of the first social form taken by a cosmopolitan communitarianism based on an ethic of personal responisbility. And that is no small contribution to the definition of so-called “Western culture.”
Translated by Alan Furth from the original in Spanish.