Mitra, Mithra, Mithras – who were they?

As the intent from the author’s research was to see if there is a connection between some form or variant of Mithraism and the Symbol Stones, a short “Who’s Who” is offered to understand chronology and location of  the “people” called – Mitra, Mithra and Mithras. Several relevant texts are mentioned in the Acknowledgements.

This picture is a bust of Mithras as he would have been considered in the time of the Roman Empire; complete with his trade-mark Phrygian cap.

If the words “Mithraic” and “Mithraism” are used to cover individually and collectively Mitra, Mithra and Mithras it can be stated that there is more than one Mithraic period, that Mithraism is not continuous and that the Mithraic periods need not be contiguous.

Fundamental to Mithraism, as is the case with most forms of religion, are man-made stories and religious beliefs created for a specific and fundamental purpose – a life beyond death, for example – therefore a source of solace or comfort. This, in itself, would cause a following to build up.

The geographical and chronological origins are generally seen as:-

  • Mithra – a Persian God preceding then absorbed into Zoroastrian religious beliefs,
  • Mitra – an Indian God within the pantheon of Vedic Hinduism and
  • Mithras – the Graeco-Roman version that was followed about the time of the Roman presence in what is now called Britain and across continental Europe and North Africa.

The latter is familiarly referred to as Roman Mithraism. The Mystery of Mithras became a cult following during the time of the expansion of the Roman Empire. It was based on the previous Persian version and was practiced across the Empire, being particularly popular within the army. Roman Mithraism started to decline with Christianity becoming the “state” religion in the 4th century CE but may have survived in modified form into, at least, the post-Roman period. Currently there appears to be a revival which uses the term Mithras.

Information from a number of sources suggests an approximate timeline:-

Mithra was deemed the son of Ahura-Mazda, the divine God of the heavens. Independent worship of Mithra declined with Zoroastrianism. The original Persian Mithra worship branched out into India where Mithra was known as Mitra. Mithras was based on Mithra but was elevated from a son of God to God himself.

David Ulansey argues that the God Mithras originated as the personification of the force responsible for the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes. Also he has been depicted as Kronos (personification of infinite time) or as the light conquering the darkness. In the bull slaying (Tauroctony) statues associated with Mithraism, Mithras is shown as young, fresh-faced and with no specific ethnic identity.

Central to Roman Mithraism is the God called Mithras (Sol Invictus – the Invincible Sun) who had the power to rotate the entire universe. This power was ascribed to him from the discovery by Hipparchus (a Greek astronomer living in the 2nd century BCE) of the precession of the equinoxes whereby the Earth has a slight wobble on its axis. In a polytheistic age the God who could effect this was a powerful God indeed!

 The Mysteries of Mithras are indelibly linked to the astronomy and astrology as understood and in use at the time. The Earth was considered to be at the centre of the universe with the Planets (including the Sun and Moon) rotating around the Earth in one direction and the firmament (Celestial Sphere) rotating in the opposite direction. This is easy to represent in two dimensions as a dot and two concentric circles. A three dimensional view would still have the Earth at the centre but with a more sophisticated representation of the Planets and firmament as two open structured spheres complete with the Zodiac, both ecliptic and celestial equators and tilt on the axis.

What we nowadays call Planets and were known at the time were Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury and Saturn. In addition the Sun and Moon were, at the time, considered to be “planets”. The previously mentioned Planets combined with the Sun and Moon gave the seven Planets which were associated with the seven steps in the ladder of initiation grades in the Roman Mithraic cult.

It must be remembered that the position of constellations relative to Earth in our timeframe (early 21st century) is not necessarily the same as in Roman Empire times; nor, according to David Ulansey, was the position in the early part of the first millennium CE relevant to reading constellations in the context of the Mysteries of Mithras. Allowing for apparent constellation locations for a specific Tauroctony alignment involving the Constellation Taurus, the significant timeframe is 2000 years before Roman Mithraism i.e. what the sky looked like about 4000 years ago. This is very important to understanding the relative positions of several constellations such that the Tauroctony occurred at a particular time of the year and has in its component constellations both the bull (Taurus) and Mithras (seen as Perseus above Taurus). So, for the Tauroctony to occur at the spring equinox the astronomical and astrological alignments need to apply to the so-called Age of Taurus (we currently are in the Age of Pisces). The intent is not to go into a lot of detail in this website, just sufficient so that later pages can be understood. Texts on Mithraism are referred to in the Acknowledgements page.

It is useful to consider the following details as these will reappear later:-

Each component of the Tauroctony has a celestial counterpart:

Bull – Taurus; Dog – Canis Minor & Canis Major; Snake – Hydra, Serpens, Draco; Raven – Corvus; Scorpion – Scorpius; Wheat ears on bull’s tail – Spica; Cautes & Cautopates – Gemini; Lion – Leo; Crater (cup) – Crater; Sol – Sun; Luna – Moon; Cave – Universe.

Mithras is shown in the Tauroctony with a figure on either side – often referred to as his companions. Looking towards the Tauroctony to the viewer’s left is Cautes (representing the morning star and spring equinox) and to the right Cautopates (representing the evening star and autumn equinox). Relative to Mithras Cautes is on his right and Cautopates on his left. These are key figures when decoding the Pictish Symbol Stones.

Other astronomical and astrological linkages can be made to Mithraism. For example, Taurus and Scorpius are in opposing sectors (around 180° apart) as, in effect, are Cautes and Cautopates when representing the equinoxes (which are 180° apart). The equinoxes in the past would have been in Taurus and Scorpius – which are symbolised in the Tauroctony by the bull’s head and the scorpion.

The number “7” features in Mithraism in several aspects. There were (as known at the time) 7 Planets. There were 7 steps as the progression grades in Mithraism; each of these 7 grades has an associated Planet. The Plough has 7 stars – it is the Bear which moves and turns the heavens around.

Coupled with a hierarchy of initiation with associated symbolism, a complex interaction between a prospective “hold” over initiates and their progressively gaining more understanding of what the Mysteries were must have enticed and retained membership.

Whilst the originating centre of Roman Mithraism may well have been Rome the term “Roman” in the context of this writing should not be thought of as just Rome the place but more the period of the Empire. The “Roman” army, for example, did not all hail from Rome or even Italy.