Myth can’t be unravelled through the anthropological lense. Mithraism is foremostly a mystery cult, and that’s the fascinating part about this cult. A mystery sets together the subjectivity of the individual with the experienced world. How the never ending questions of life synergize, standing between the experiencing subject and the surrounding world, opens up the realm to the mythical side of life.
Because of the central mythologem of the tauroctony, Mithraism has been equalled with other cults in which animal sacrifice had been practiced. However the myth suggests that the act of killing in Mithraism was a heterogeneous metaphor. The act of killing indicated a fundamental conflict. Mithras carried out the slaying on behalf of the God Sol. The act was an act of obedience and could be compared to the situation between ruled and ruler.
Mithras abandoned Sol as his superior after slaying the primeval bull. This change of mind in Mithras’ attitude towards the firstly superior God Sol must have been of an important symbolical meaning, at least in the mythological knowledge of the adherents of the cult, otherwise this aspect of the God Mithras wouldn’t have played such an easily noticeable role in Roman Mithraism.
The cult was of course practised mostly by the Roman military. Mithraism might have dealt with the conflict of killing and being killed. The primeval bull was, back in the Iranian mythology linked to early Mithraism, of a central meaning and stood for the entity of life.
From archaeology we know that in one mithraic ritual a sword was held to the initiates body, a sword that would spare out the body with a curved iron. The tip and the lower part of the sword made to create the impression as if the initiates body was pierced through with the sword:
The ritual might have helped to prepare a soldier for the risks he would face in battle – to give ones life or to take life. Since the ritual was part of the initiation rites, the problem of “being potentially killed” and having to kill stood in connection with the hierarchical steps that the neophyte would climb in his search for the greater truth behind the superficial.
The primeval bull, that solely as a symbol was being slayed in Mithraism, stood for life-as-such in Zoroastrianism. In the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian mythology the bull (cattle) was being equated with the central deity (Artha or Simorgh). In Zoroastrianism Gayomart (the first human being) and Geush Urvan (the primeval bull) were equated with the “mortal life”. However both stood for representing “life”. (1)
The tauroctony should not be confused with a “taurobolium”, which was an actual bull killing cult act performed by initiates of the Mysteries of Magna Mater. It has nothing to do with the Mithraic Mysteries.
“There is no evidence that [initiates of the Mithraic mysteries] ever performed such a rite [i.e. a real bull killing], and a priori considerations suggest that a mithraeum – any mithraeum – would be a most impractical place to attempt it.”
Beck, Roger (1984), “Mithraism since Franz Cumont”, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17, 4, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 2002–2115.
The forceful and willful cessation of any life creates a conflict for the person who commits the killing. In the military you ought to be ready to kill, you have sworn an oath that you must not break. Mithras is the God of the contract. swearing an oath that you will kill and possibly be killed in combat, makes you face the fundamental question of 1. an obedience that takes you beyond the own interest to live 2. killing because you have been told to do so.
We can see in military life today how many soldiers have a conflict with killing and being potentially killed in a war. The conflict between serving a cause that you want to serve and the sacrifice that you most potentially have to make, must have always been a very deep psychological process.
If we see people in the past as being blank of similar feelings and thoughts that we experience today too, then we risk not getting an insight into what a myth of a past really might have meant to the ones who practiced a cult driven by a myth. People at all times spent thoughts about what they did and how they would deal with things.
(1) Gayōmart, Avestan Gayō Maretan (“Mortal Life”), in later Zoroastrian creation literature, the first man, and the progenitor of mankind. Gayōmart’s spirit, with that of the primeval ox, lived for 3,000 years during the period in which creation was only spiritual. His mere existence immobilized Ahriman, the evil spirit who wanted to invade creation. Then Ahura Mazdā created Gayōmart incarnate—white and brilliant, shining like the sun—and put in him and the primeval ox, alone of all created things, a seed whose origin was in fire.
Ahura Mazdā gave Gayōmart the boon of sleep for respite from the onslaught of Ahriman. But after 30 years of attacks, Ahriman destroyed Gayōmart. His body became the Earth’s metals and minerals. Gold was his seed, and from it sprung the human race.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/227432/Gayomart (accessed: 09 June 2012)
RAVEN, Spring 2012