Wilmshurt writes in Chapter 1 of The Meaning of Masonry that the Ancient Mysteries existed “in the East, in Chaldea, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, among the Hebrews, Mohammedans, Christians, and in Africa.” This is the second article in which I talk about important Mystery School background information useful to understanding the rest of Wilmshurt’s book. The focus of this article is the ancient Mystery religion of Mithras.
The Mithras Mysteries
The Mysteries of Mithras are very controversial in circles that compare them to Christian tradition and with good reason. As was the practice in the Roman Empire and early Christianity, elements of lesser or different cults were incorporated into the Christian faith in an effort to ease the absorption of followers from one religion to the other. For many Christians today, the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism are a sign of seeded confusion by non other than the Devil himself. The purpose of delving into the Mithras Mysteries here is not to solve the cause or origin of the puzzling similarities between the two faiths, an endeavor that is doomed to fall into some speculation. Rather, because Wilmshurt emphasizes the influence of the Ancient Mysteries on Freemasonic philosophy, I wish to expand on what, exactly, these Mysteries were all about. The similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are, in fact, part of a much larger pattern of shared commonalities among a number of Mystery Schools and ancient religions that I will discuss in future articles.
Mithraism has sometimes been viewed as a rival of early Christianity because both faiths involved a liberator-saviour, a hierarchy of adepts (archbishops, bishops, and priests), a sacramental communal meal with almost identical ritual language, and a struggle between Good and Evil. Believers in Mithras were rewarded with eternal life. Part of the Mithraic communion liturgy included the words, “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.” Yet, for every similarly between Christianity and Mithraism, there appears to have been many fundamental differences too.
The Mythraic Mysteries were practised in the Roman Empire from about the 1st to the 4th century AD. The earliest documented followers of Mithras in the Roman Empire were soldiers and officers of the Roman army, but with the rising popularity of the school, the majority of initiates were freed slaves of the cities. The Mystery school was based on mutual interest, friendship, and intimacy. The temples accommodated only small groups. It is understandable that members of the military were attracted by these aspects, which guaranteed some sort of stability in an otherwise dangerous profession.
The Mystery School was originally inspired by the Persian worship of the god Mithra. The Greek Mithraic Mysteries had a new and distinctive imagery so the level of continuity between the Persian and the Greco-Roman practise is debated. The secretive nature of the Mithras Mysteries is what designates Mithraism as a Mystery religion. No written narratives or theology from the Mystery School survive, leaving limited information to be derived only from sparse inscriptions and brief or passing references in Greek and Latin literature. The Romans themselves regarded the Mithras Mysteries as having Persian or Zoroastrian sources.
Christianity adopted an aspect of Mithraism – the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, a tradition that began in the 4th century. The birth of Mithras, like that of many other ancient and pagan gods, was celebrated on December 25th, which perhaps evidences the celebration of the winter solstice and the solar cycle. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in the year 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus Christ would be celebrated each 25th of December.
Mithraism and Christianity developed in the same area of the world at the same time, a fact that makes their similar ideas and practices understandable, regardless of their level of interaction. Ritual communal meals and the theme of sacrifice for salvation, for instance, were common not only to Mithraism and Christianity but much of the ancient world.
The root of Mithras’ name is ‘mihr,’ which means ‘contract.’ Mithras was supposed to oversee contracts, friendship, and justice. The Mithras Mysteries had seven degrees of initiation. Contemporary sources indicate that the degrees included ablutions (or baptism), purifications, chastisements, fetters (restraints) and liberation, and ceremonial passwords. Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake.”
Dexiosis (Greek) or dextrarum iunctio (Latin), was a peculiar Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Early Christian practice of joining the right hands in a solemn and ceremonial handclasp. In the Roman world, the right hand was sacred to Fides, the deity of fidelity. The clasping of the right hand was a solemn gesture of mutual fidelity and loyalty at the conclusion of an agreement or contract, the taking of an oath of allegiance, or reception into the Mysteries.
The Initiates met in underground temples (called mithraea or mithraeum), which survive in large numbers. The cult appears to have had its centre in Rome. It has been estimated that there would have been at least 680 mithraea in Rome.
The Mithraeum of the Seven Gates was built in the first century AD in the Roman port of Ostia. The central part of the back wall of its shrine was painted red, the colour of the sun and fire. On the east, north, and west walls was a depiction of a garden. The garden was a symbol of rebirth.
The seven gates in the room are a reference to the seven planetary spheres through which the souls of the initiates passed. The iconic scenes of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun).
The most important element of the myth in the Mithraic Mysteries was Mithras’ killing of a bull; this scene is also known as “tauroctony”. It was believed that from the death of the bull – an animal often seen as a symbol of strength and fertility – sprung new life. Rebirth was an essential idea in the myth. Yet, the meaning of this intriguing iconography is not entirely clear. The act clearly represents a sacrifice, but for what purpose? Scholars have suggested that the sacrifice creates or ends the world or saves the world or the initiates of the Mystery School. In a Mithraic temple in Rome, an inscription reads, et nos servasti… sanguine fuso: “and who saved us with the shed blood.” If this is the meaning of the bull-slaying image, it still remains unclear what “salvation” meant to the followers of Mithras.
The myth was interpreted by the Roman Mithraists in terms of Platonic philosophy. The sacrifice took place in a cave, an image of the world, as in the simile of the cave in Plato’s Republic, for those familiar with Platonism. Mithra himself was equated with the creator (demiurge) of the Timaeus: he was called “demiurge and father of all things,” like the Platonic demiurge. The Mithraic doctrine of the soul is intimately linked with the myth of creation and with Platonic philosophy. The task of man in Platonic philosophy is to liberate his divine part (the soul) from the shackles of the body and to reascend through the seven spheres to the eternal, unchanging realm of the fixed stars. This ascension to the sky was prefigured by Mithra himself, when he left the earth in the chariot of the sun god.
About 420 sites have yielded materials related to the Mithras Mystery School. Among the items found are about 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene, and about 400 other monuments. The few texts that refer to the Mithras School come not from Mithraic devotees themselves, but rather from outsiders such as early Church fathers, who mentioned Mithraism in order to attack it, and Platonic philosophers, who attempted to find support in Mithraic symbolism for their own philosophical ideas.
The Mithraic sanctuaries were subterranean caverns, which fitted no more than one hundred people at most. All ceremonies were of necessity enacted in artificial light. The cavern always contained a well. Access to the cavern often consisted of a system of subterranean passages, which were used in the initiation ceremonies.
Initiates had to take part in tests of courage. In the Byzantine encylopedia known as the Suda there is an entry for “Mithras”, which states that “no one was permitted to be initiated into the mysteries of Mithras, until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests.” Five frescos at the Mithraeum of ancient Capua in Italy depict what may be the rituals for some of the grades of initiation. The frescos are very damaged and hard to interpret, since the meaning of the depicted iconography and rituals was a secret known only to initiates. Insiders did not record details of their religion and outsiders did not know much about it. This obviously makes things difficult for historians, so there is much about Mithraism that is still not known.
The first fresco shows a blindfolded naked man; in the second he is also kneeling and his hands are bound behind him; in the third he is no longer blindfolded and is being crowned; in the fourth he is being restrained from rising; in the fifth he is lying on the ground as if dead. This probably was a ritual death, in which the initiate was “killed” with a non-lethal theatre-sword, and was then reborn.
Important elements of the cult were self-denial and a moral questioning of the self. The Christian author Tertullian tells us around 200 CE, that initiates had to win a sort of mock duel and then, when a crown was placed on the victorious initiate’s head, the initiate had to reject it, saying “Mithras is my crown.” This too was thought of as a ritual of reincarnation, which started a new life for the initiate.
Masons can surely recognize elements of ritual and philosophy within the Mithras School. Learning about the Ancient Mysteries is an important and useful background to a good Masonic education. I will continue to write on this topic in my next article. Thank you very much for reading!
Phoenix St. John
Sources: Phoenix St. John’s Comparative Religion background, Ostia Topographical Dictionary, ReligionFacts, Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Mysterium.com, Tertullian.org, Study.com, Innvista Library.