On The Mysteries of Mithras

I died as a mineral and became a vegetable, I passed away as vegetation and became animal. Leaving the animal state I became man. Why should I fear? When was I less through death? I shall once more die: from manhood, to soar with angels: and I must pass beyond angelhood—all perish but God. When I have given up my angel self, I shall be what no mind has conceived.

—Jalaluddin Rumi

Perhaps it was fitting to begin the following article on the Mithraic Mysteries on the day of the recent Winter Solstice. According to tradition, the god Mithras was born of (“sprang from”) the rock on the shortest day of the year, his birthday celebration occurring on December 25, marking the return of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.1)

Prior to the vision of Roman Emperor Constantine later establishing Christianity as state religion, a fraternity centered upon the Rites of Mithras once captivated the Western world. Originating in India and later spreading to Persia, Mithraism moved across Europe along with the sprawl of the late Roman Empire.2)

Plutarch, in his Life of Pompey credits the introduction of Mithraism in Rome to pirates arriving from Cilicia, an ancient region south of the Tarsus Mountains in southeast Asia Minor along the Mediterranean Sea.3)

The Indo-Persian myth describing Ahura-Mazda’s battle of Light against Darkness casts Mithras as an associate of the Sun.4)

As the tale begins, Mithras captures the wild bull, the first creation of Ahura-Mazda, and confines it within a cave. The bull escapes, and the Sun sends his messenger the Raven to look for it. Mithras is also sent by Ahura-Mazda and with the help of his dog, he recaptures the beast. He drags it back to the cave and straddles it, cutting the bull’s throat. From the resulting issue of blood springs corn, wheat, and other forms of life. In retaliation, Ahriman, the Chief of Darkness, orders his minions, the ant, snake, and scorpion, to drink up the miraculous fluid, but to no avail: it spreads all over the world giving it life. In a gesture of acknowledgement, the Sun kneels before Mithras offering a crown to seal a covenant with him. The two part ways after a sacramental meal.

As we shall see, the reenactment of the myth in the rites of initiation involved passing through seven grades that correspond to seven planets. The worship of Mithras at this time required the construction of a Mithraea, a temple in the form of an underground vault or “cave.” The temple interior consisted of a torch-lit hall with side benches culminating in a central sculpted image of Mithras. Adorned with a Phrygian (“Persian”) cap, he is depicted holding a bull by the nostrils from behind in the act of stabbing it in the neck with a dagger. His image is often accompanied by two torchbearers, possibly representing the Sun and the Moon: Cautes, with upraised torch, and Cautopates, with torch pointed earthward. The ceiling of the sanctuary was painted to resemble the starry “cave” of the night sky. Franz Cumont has mapped the dispersion of various Mithraea across Europe and Asia Minor.5) The number of them, and of other related Mithraic artifacts is astounding, and indeed, many temples remain intact to this day.

Roman Mithraism appropriated and adapted occult knowledge from the Pythagorean Mysteries, through the astronomical revelations of Hipparchus and the later speculations of the Stoics.6)

Accordingly, Mithraic scholar David Ulansey feels that The Rites of Mithra may be explained by examining the astral religion of the Hellenistic period.7) The position of the images depicted in the sanctuary suggest that they are directly related to constellations observable at that time: the bull to Taurus, scorpion to Scorpio, snake to Hydra, raven to Corvus, dog to Canus minor, lion to Leo major.

Ulansey connects Mithras with the Greek god Perseus of the constellation just above Taurus, who was also known as “the Persian.” Perseus was popularly worshipped in Cilicia, home to the pirates described by Plutarch. In myth, Perseus kills the Gorgon and similarly, as we have seen, Mithras kills the bull. The astral adaptation is a metaphor for the precession of the equinoxes signaling the end of the Age of Taurus, and the beginning of the Age of Aries. Mithras is seen as a diety with the power to move the universe on its cosmic axis, one who controls Fate. Identification with such a God through ritual would seem to confer similar gifts upon the initiate, bestowing the promise of everlasting life.8)

One writer has labeled Mithraism “the Freemasonry of the Roman World.”9)

However, initiation into the Mysteries of Mithras in a Roman Mithraea involved austerities and hardships that would make the most rugged Freemason of today blanch.10) The candidate entered the ritual space blindfolded and naked. An oath of secrecy was obtained. Ordeals by fire, by branding upon the forehead, scourging, striking with the leg of a bull, as well as the laying on of hands, pouring on of water, and the bestowing of a solar crown upon the head are reported. Masks and costumes representing key figures found in the myth were worn by participants who had previously achieved the various grades in the hierarchy of the Rite.

The “grades” accompanying initiation correspond to the principal participants and their activity found within the myth.11)

The lower grades, known collectively as “Servitors” were in ascending order: 1st. Raven, of the element of Air, is under the sign of Mercury messenger of the gods. Symbols of this degree include the raven, cup, and caduceus of Mercury. 2nd. Bride(groom?), of the element of Water, is under the sign of Venus. Fragments suggest that symbols of this degree included a lamp and a crown. The joining of hands was part of this grade, hence the allusion to a “wedding ceremony.” 3rd. Soldier, of the element of Earth, is under the sign of Mars. Symbols are the soldier’s pouch worn over his shoulder, a helmet, and a lance.

The upper grades, known as the “Participants,” were: 4th . Lion, of the element of Fire, under the sign of Jupiter. Symbols of this degree include a fire shovel, a sistrum, and thunderbolts. 5th. Persian, of the element of Water, under the sign of the Moon. Symbols include a hooked knife, a scythe or plow, and the moon and a star. 6th. Courier of the Sun, of the element of Fire, under the sign of the Sun. Symbols are a torch, crown, and a whip (to drive his chariot across the sky). 7th. Father (Pater) under the sign of Saturn. Symbols include a ring or dish, a staff, the Phrygian cap, and a sickle.12) The holder of this highest rank dressed like Mithras himself. During initiations and other regular ritual activity including sacramental meals, the holders of the various grades were regarded as the earthly representatives of celestial, archetypal participants in the myth.

Were the Rites of Mithras “co-masonic?” Not in the Roman rite, which was most popular among men in the military. At its peak, it was a warrior’s religion. However, evidence suggests that there were fraternal relationships with women from the Cybele-cult, who possibly shared the taurobolium—a “baptism” in bull’s blood, with initiates of Mithraism. This point is controversial, and it is not clear how it may have been performed in a typically small Mithraea.13)

A final sculptural image of Mithras depicts him as the Aeonic Mithras, the Mithraic Cronus, representative of Boundless Time.

“A Being with lion’s head, and eagles wings, and brute’s feet, and human body, enwrapped with a serpent, standing on a globe and holding the keys of life and death in its two hands….The Autozoon, or Living Creature in itself the summation of all forms of life, including man.”14)

“It was this God, that the adepts of the mysteries placed at the head of the celestial hierarchy, and considered the first Principal.”15) Surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, he is the winged, invincible Soul emerging from the Cosmic Egg, coiled in the form of the rising serpent representing the manifestation of matter out of the central mystery of Eternity.

The fraternal Mithraic Rites fulfill the function of a Mystery School designed to join the temporal nature of the initiate with the Eternal Reality of Spiritual Truth. Establishing a Golden Chain linking Heaven and Earth through the intermediary of human experience, the follower of Mithras walks a path mirroring that of the stars moving through the Universe, and beyond, into a timeless realm that truly, no mind may conceive.

Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh. Persian Myths. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993.

Evola, Julius. The Path of Enlightenment in the Mithraic Mysteries. The Alexandrian Press, Edmonds, 1994 (reprint).

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2nd ed.). Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1993.

Greenfield, Allen H. The Compleat Rite of Memphis. Luxor Press, Marietta, 1998.

Howe, Ellic. Fringe Masonry in England 1870-1885. Holmes, Edmonds, 1997 (1972).

Mead. G.R.S. A Mithraic Ritual. Alexandrian Press, Edmonds, (reprint, no date).

Mead. G.R.S. The Mysteries of Mithras. Alexandrian Press, Edmonds,1993 (reprint).

Meyer, Marvin W. (ed.) The Ancient Mysteries – A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1987.

O’Grady, Joan. Early Christian Heresies. Barnes & Noble, New York, 1985.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis – The Nature and History of Gnosticism. HarperSanFrancisco, 1987.

Yarker, John. The Secret High Degree Rituals of the Masonic Rite of Memphis. Kessinger (reprint, no date).

It is also the “intelligence” in matter realized and “released.” Philosopher’s Salt, the irreducible form of matter, includes a sparkling light, the “secret fire” of Alchemy, found everywhere, in everything.
“In the Vedas he is a divinity of light subordinate to Ahura or Varuna, in the Avesta a spirit of light or fertilizing warmth, also associated with truth and the oath.” – The Religions of the Roman Empire by John Ferguson, Cornell, New York, 1970, p 47.
See: Plutarch of Chaeronea, Life of Pompey, 24, 1-8, trans. by Rex Warner, Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives by Plutarch, Penguin, New York, 1972.
In another tale, Mithras is a god of the waters, firing an arrow into a rock that bursts forth with a spring. In others, he is associated with mountains and the rising Sun. See: Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth –From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran, by Henri Corbin, Princeton, 1977. A sub-section titled “Visionary Geography” contains: “the mountain first lighted up by the rays of the dawn also enlightens the intelligence, since dawn and intelligence are one (usha and ushi) –p 27.
The Mysteries of Mithra, by Franz Cumont. Dover, New York, 1956, see the foldout map tipped inside the back cover.
The appropriation and adaptation continues: see (trans. by Jocelyn Godwin), Introduction to Magic Rituals and Practical Techniques for the Magus –Julius Evola and the UR Group. Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2000.
See: Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. Oxford, 1989.
The Phrygian cap also identifies Mithras as Cosmic Alchemist. In this role, he kills, or “fixes” the constellation of Taurus, the springtime of the year when the dew is full of Fire symbolized by the potent blood of the bull. The presence of the “torchbearers” indicates the Spring and Fall equinoxes, and also -again- the celestial fire in the dew, which falls and also rises, as above, so below. The dog laps the blood representing Salt (of tartar), the magnet absorbing the dew. The Raven implies putrefaction, the decomposition of the body of the bull again reduced to the Salt of the Earth producing a “new generation by celestial resuscitation” (see: the Fourth Key of Basilus Valentinus) represented by the wheat shaft of the bull’s tail.
Jocelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World. Thames & Hudson, London, 1981, p 98.
Vestiges of Mithraic initiation are preserved in the 49th degree of the Rite of Memphis, the “Sublime Sage of the Pyramids.”
All symbols relating to the degrees that follow are based on the mosaic found in the Mithraea of Felicissimus, Ostia.
While several layers of meaning accompany the symbolism and it is our purpose here to “open out” and not “close down” such rich imagery, it is interesting to note the presence of the “sickle/scythe” in the 5th and 7th grades, the tool(s) of discrimination associated with Kali, the Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.
In the 1960’s, German artist Hermann Nitsch re-instituted the taurobolium in a series of art “performance” pieces.
Thrice Great Hermes, by G.R.S. Mead, Weiser, York Beach, 2000, p278 (1st book).
Franz Cumont, quoted on p 279 of Thrice Great Hermes, ibid.


All material in this section copyright © John Eberly