A short look on the historical background of Mithraism

The historical initials of Mithraism came from pre-Zoroastrian Persia

MITHRAISM - the worship of the Indo-Iranian god of light Mithras or also Mithra (Sanskrit Mitra) - spread from it's birthplace Persia to Asia Minor and later, with many alterations, to Rome and many parts of the Roman empire. Mithraism is one of the last oriental mystery cults to reach the west and also had been one of the most vigorous. In the final death struggle of paganism it emerged as a chief rival and opponent of Christianity.

The position of Mithras in Iran did not have an exclusionary or dominant meaning, but there the god was part of a plurality of deities. Mithras there, though greater in meaning than the Mitra in Vedic India, held little promise of the god's future career in the west. He is not mentioned in the Gathas, which suggests that he was deliberately ignored in the monotheistic reforms of Zoroaster. Later Zoroastrianism found room for him though, but only as subordinate to the supreme god Ormazd (Ahura Mazda).

Mithras appears with Ormazd and Anahita, the goddesss of waters, in royal inscriptions of the 4th century B.C., and the Achaemenid kings of the period seem to have regarded him as their special patron.

The Avestan hymns, notably Yasht x, depict him as the god of heavenly light, all-seeing, the guardian of oaths, protector of the righteous in this world and the next, and above all as archfoe of the powers of evil and darkness and hence as the god of battles.

It was not this national cult of Mithras that was to attract the west later in history, but rather an amalgam, that came into being abroad, in the wake of the Persian conquests.

Relations of Mithraism and Christianity

The opinion of Ernest Renan, that if the growth of Christianity had been stopped early in its history the word would have been Mithraic, has less value as a historical judgment than for its evocation of how the religious conflict might have seemed to a 3rd-century Christian or Mithraist.

The two religions had few but interesting comparable traits:

  1. a divine Lord by whose deeds, performed once (unlike the annual passion of an Attis or an Osiris), man was assured of salvation
  2. a ritual of baptism and a sacramental meal
  3. a concept of religion that could liken the religious life to enlistenment and service under a divine commander, militia Christi or militia Mithrae (though in the case of Mithraism this perhaps did not imply the cosmic struggle between good and evil that appears in both Christianity and Zoroastrianism)
  4. not dissimilar ideas of heaven and hell and of a Last Judgment
  5. and, a moral code considerably higher and more rigid than that required by most other cults or, perhaps, even than that found in contemporary society.

The more deeply rooted similarities are best explained in terms of a common oriental background. Still, the similarities were in any case outweighed by the differences. In a period when philosophic and popular thought was increasingly tending to monotheism, Mithraism for all its exaltation of Mithras, was securely bound to its polytheistic traditions.


Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1964.

Franz Cumont, 'Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra', 2. vol (1894-1900); 'Les Mystères de Mithra', 3rd ed. (1913); 'Les Religion orientales dans le paganisme romain, 4th ed., ch. vi (1929).

M.J. Vermaseren, 'Corpus Inscriptionum et Momentorum Religionis Mithriacae', vol. i (1956).


  • See the first part of the Mithras Werkzyklus Zum Beispiel Mithras, Part I, on: mithras.farangis.de.

On Mithraism

Large view of the paintings