Mithraism & Christianity

Persian and Roman Mithraism

Romans usually called Mithras “Sol Dominus Invictus.” Roman writers believed that Mithraism came from Persia and that Mithraic iconography represented Persian mythology. From this beginning modern scholars have traced Mithras in Persian, Mittanian and Indian mythology. The Mitanni gave us the first written reference to Mithras in a treaty with the Hittites. Mithras is celebrated in the Zoroastrian Yashts or hymns of the Sassanian (224-640 AD) Avesta, a book which preserved old oral traditions. Mithras was a Persian saviour, whose cult was the leading rival of Christianity in Rome, and more successful than Christianity in the first four centuries of the Christian era.

Mithras is a Greek form of the name of an Indo-European god, Mithra or Mitra. At the end of the nineteenth century Franz Cumont, a Belgian historian of religion, published a two volume work on the Mithraic mysteries taking the origins of the cult as Persian. Cumont remains the classic work on the subject but latterly has been challenged by Christian sceptics. The challenge is based on the lack of hard evidence, much of which Christians themselves destroyed, so there is good reason to stick with the authoritative foundation of Cumont's earlier work.

Few writers mention the cult. The evidence for it is mostly archaeological—the remains of mithraic temples, monumental inscriptions, the iconography of the god and sculptures, sculpted reliefs, wall paintings and mosaics. From every known such reference and such documents as existed, Cumont claimed that Mithras was Persian Mithra. If Mithras had Iranian roots then the Roman cult of Mithraism must have begun in the east of the Roman empire and spread by soldiers, eastern merchants—called "Syrians"and slaves, in the middle of the first century BC. Slaves, soldiers and merchants were highly mobile and so offered a means of rapid transmission of the cult.

Roman soldiers met worshippers of the god, Mithras, in the provinces to the east of the empire, adjacent to Persia, and Plutarch confirms that Mithraism entered the Empire from Persia when Pompey's Roman soldiers encountered pirates from Cilicia—the home in Asia Minor of Paul the apostle—practising the "secret rites of Mithras" and were impressed by the god's high precepts. That the rites were "secret" means the cult was a "mystery" religion. Christians, desperate to make Mithraism dependent on Christianity, insist that it only started in the second half of the first century AD, despite Plutarch's plain statement. Since he lived at this very time, he can hardly have thought a new Roman fad was over a century old.

Nevertheless it was in the first century of this era that it begin to take off in popularity, and physical remains of the worship of Mithras only appear after 150 AD. About twenty-five inscriptions to him have been found in Spain, and several statues of him were found at Merida, perhaps a cult centre in the west. It was not officially recognised in the Empire until the end of the second century AD and reached the height of its popularity in the third century. There were perhaps thousands of Mithraic temples in the Roman empire, mainly in Rome itself but, as Mithraism appealed to soldiers, also in garrisons on the frontiers of the Empire. It was one of the last of the Eastern Mystery cults to reach the West and one of the most vigorous.

In the original Persian pantheon Mithras was a yazata (angel) lower than Ahuramazda (later Ormuzd), the Supreme Being, with whom he was associated, but higher than the Sun. Zoroaster, whose aim was to promote monotheism, omitted him from the Gathas in favour of Ahuramazda. Later, he became more important than Ahuramazda, because he acted as mediator between men and those on the divine level. Eventually Strabo could write:

[The Persians] honour the Sun, whom they call Mithras, and the Moon and Aphrodite, and Fire and Earth, and Winds and Water.


Mithras became omniscient, the god of light, the Heavenly Light, a spiritual Sun, the enemy of darkness and therefore of evil and hence the god of battles and of military victory. Mithras was the god of contracts and oaths, he embodied the seven divine spirits of goodness, he protected the righteous in this world and helped them into the next. He sent rain from Heaven and light from the sun and helped mankind by slaying the primaeval bull fertilising the earth. He was the Logos (the Word).

His enemy was the Demiurge, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the god with power to spoil the good creation of Ahuramazda in mankind's level of the cosmos, and so able to mislead men. The Magi saw a trinity of Mithras, Ahuramazda and Ahriman. Ahuramazda and Ahriman seemed to be mirror images of some complex power and Mithras was the link. Mithras only took the side of Ahuramazda at the earthly level, otherwise he was neutral between the two principles.

The Mithraism that entered the Roman Empire was a combination of Persian Mithraic belief, Babylonian astrology, Greek mysteries and perhaps Greek philosophy. Christian polemicists deny that the Roman Mithras was the same god as the Persian Mithras. They say the Roman Mithras cannot be assumed to have originated in Iran, and was only a distant relative of the Persian god, perhaps associated by name only. Assertions do not dispose of arguments, though Christians, used to settling all disputes by reference to the holy book, have got into the habit of believing they do.

There is admittedly little evidence for a Persian cult of Mithra. Persians were reluctant to make pictures of their gods, just like the Moslems today, and there is no Persian iconography of the god slaying the bull found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Also, there are few traces of the Roman cult in Asia Minor whence it supposedly emerged. Most evidence of the worship of Mithras comes from the western empire, particularly Rome itself and its port, Ostia, and the military forts on the Danube. Mithraism was also popular among the legionaries in North Africa and those in the forts of Hadrian's wall. Rome had some 700 mithraea and Ostia had some more, but not many have survived. Besides grottos, 400 other traces of Mithras have been found in Rome and Ostia. Mithraism in Rome and Ostia appealed to the same people—soldiers, slaves and merchants—as elsewhere and existed in the area of Rome as early as the late first century AD. Only from the middle of the second century AD did it blossom.

The earliest remains of the cult of Mithras are from the garrison at Carnuntum in Upper Pannonia on the Danube River (modern Hungary). The Roman legion, XV Apollinaris, garrisoned at Carnuntum was ordered East in 63 AD to fight against the Parthians and then the Jews, who revolted from 66-70 AD. In about 71 or 72 AD, on their return to base back in Carnuntum, the legionaries made Mithraic dedications.

It is impossible not to identify the Roman and the Persian gods called Mithras. Christians want us to believe that Pagans worshipped two quite different gods with the same name and an identifiable point of contact. It is too absurd and a sign of desperation that such views are submitted for consideration. The Mithras of the Roman religion had certainly changed in his slow journey from Susa, as noted above, but it is quite ignorant and stupid to pretend that the Roman Mithras did not begin in Persia and retained many of the qualities of the Persian god. And the lack of remains in the east is easily explained, as Christians ought to realise. It is that Christianity first established itself and grew in these very regions, probably detracting from the growth of Mithraism.

An attraction for the Romans of Oriental religions was that they had a long history and their gods a reputation for wisdom. This was true of Mithraism. Mithras was a redeemer but also offered a role model as an epitome of morality. Mithraism began to spread because it appealed to three main groups of people; to the merchant classes who valued its demand for high moral standards and therefore honesty, to the lowly and humble such as slaves poor freedmen, and particularly to the military. Its failing might have been that women were excluded—adherents were all male and were sworn to secrecy. It had strong elements of Freemasonry in its organisation.

Females worshipped Cybele, Isis and later, Jesus. Mithraism had no extensive priestly caste. Each small group of worshippers had a father, simply a mamber of the highest rank of the cult. Why are Christian priests called father? Major centres of worship had a father of fathers, equivalent to a Christian bishop. It always remained a private religion, never receiving huge state patronage, so the shrines and churches of Mithras remained humble and the worshippers pious and egalitarian. In Mithraic churches, noble, freedman and slave met as equals. Mithraism had its male celibates and expected its initiates to repudiate worldly offerings expecting instead heavenly wealth.

Myth and the Tauroctony

The story of Mithras begins with the Demiurge oppressing mankind. Mithras is incarnated from a rock on 25 December, the old date of the midwinter solstice. He enters the world, observed by lowly shepherds, on the darkest day of the year—he is the Light of the World. During his incarnation he helps mankind like Orpheus and carries out miracles like Jesus. In an abstract way, he dies for the good of mankind. He kills the sacred bull, the equinoctial sun which revivifies the earth, but the bull is an aspect of himself, for he is the sun. So he kills himself, just as God, the Father, kills himself by offering himself as a victim in his aspect as God, the Son. As an annual sun god he is resurrected. His mission done he holds a last supper with his disciples and returns to Heaven, the level beyond the cosmos, in the solar chariot. He will be victorious over evil at the last battle and will sit in judgement on mankind, when he will lead the Chosen Ones over a river of fire to immortality.

Christians are quite desperate to prove that Mithras was not a dying and rising god. They say, even granting that the suffering god myth is essential to mystery religions, Mithras can hardly be included because he is the only god who did not suffer. It is true that the god in his human form did not die as the others did, but he died in the form of the bull which represented himself. Christians claim this is all a misapprehension based on Cumont's original interpretation which is—they say—plagued with problems. So today’s Mithraic scholars are very sceptical of attempts to understand the Roman Mithras in the light of the Iranian one. It would be nice to know how many of these Mithraic sceptics are Christians. We can guess most, and we can thank earlier Christians for the lack of evidence, but sun gods often slay bulls which represent themselves as the sun rising in the constellation of Taurus. The idea has a firm and ancient basis.

Mithras worship took place in churches called grottos, imitations of caves or sometimes actual caves or catacombs, a small oblong space with a domed ceiling about 7-10 metres wide, decorated with carved reliefs, statues and paintings. To enhance the resemblence to a natural cave the ceiling of the mithraeum was vaulted and sometimes was rendered with crushed pottery to give an illusion of rock. The ceilings sometimes had vents to admit shafts of light. A narrow aisle about 12-20 metres long usually ran down the centre of the room with a stone bench on either side for about two dozen members to sit or recline on during the service. If an ordinary room was being prepared as a grotto then dining couches were arranged in two rows down the length of the room. At the end of the aisle, opposite the entrance, was a symbolic mural, carved relief or tapestry of Mithras slaying a bull inside a cave like the mithraeum itself, which would be brightly illuminated in the dimness of the grotto. This tauroctony was the main icon of Mithraism. This mural was often one of a diptych, the other showing Mithras sitting at a table with the sun.

From the arrangement of benches or dining couches, and from wall paintings in some mithraea, it seems worshippers were initiated into the celebration of a common meal. Devotees sought communion with Mithras to prepare for the final judgement.

He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved. Mithraic Communion M J Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God)


However, there is no way of inferring that a bull was actually sacrificed and eaten. Most mithraea seated only about 40 worshippers and the rooms were too small for bull sacrifices.

Mithraic imagery is largely astronomical. The setting is a cave encircled by the chariot of the sun and the signs of the zodiac. The Neoplatonic philosopher, Porphyry, says the cave of the tauroctony, which the domed Mithraic grottos were meant to imitate, was “the cosmos.” The zodiac, planets, sun, moon, and stars are commonly portrayed in Mithraic art. Mithras himself was usually shown clad in a tunic, Persian trousers, cloak and a pointed floppy cap called a Phrygian cap, as slaying the cosmic bull created by Ahuramazda, the God of Light, to prevent Ahriman from slaying it, and thereby offering the first sacrifice, but occasionally he was depicted as Sol. The grotto mural showed Mithras pulling back the bull's head by its nostrils and stabbing its exposed neck with a dagger in his right hand, the bull's blood re-entering the earth yielding ears of corn. Thus, the mural represents the sacrifice of the primeval bull, the first animal, from the soul of which came all other life as a result of this sacrifice. Thus it stood for life, vitality, vigour, peace and plenty—the whole of Ahuramazda's good creation. But the evil creation of Ahriman was shown biting and stinging the good world.

The Sun and the Moon observe the sacrifice. Two torch bearers are in attendance, one with an up turned torch and one with a down turned torch. A torch bearer in ancient symbolism denoted the sun. In Apuleius's Golden Ass, we read:

I carried a lighted torch thus I was adorned as the sun.


In the mysteries of Eleusis, the torch bearer was dressed as the sun. In ancient symbolism a cross represents the equinoxes, when the equinoctial plane intersects the celestial equator, making a notional cross in the heavens. The two torch bearers in the tauroctony are often shown with crossed legs because they stand for the sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes. The spring equinox is denoted by a raised torch representing light, summer, life, spirit and the liberated soul. The autumn equinox is shown by a lowered torch representing darkness, winter, death, matter and the soul trapped in the body. A serpent or a dog drinks the bull's blood. Other symbolic objects present include a raven on the bull's back, a scorpion nipping at its testicles and a tree.

A lion headed figure in the coils of a snake represents Ahriman, the Prince of Darkness and therefore evil. The Christian expression for the devil, Prince of Darkness, used for example by Milton, matches Mithraic as well as Essene use—Mithras was Light and Darkness was Evil. The force of Good necessarily was opposed by a force of Evil in the old religions. Ahuramazda was opposed by Ahriman in the Persian religion; Osiris was opposed by Set in the Egyptian religion. Other names for Satan trace him to earlier pastoral gods Pan and Zeus Myiagros, respectively Mephistopheles and Beelzebub, the Protector of Flocks, the Lord of the Flies as the Jews mockingly called him, Baal of the Philistines.

In well preserved Mithraea, other scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar. In these other pictures Mithras is the Saoshyant or redeemer of the cosmos, ending up in heaven having destroyed evil and restored the world at the End of Time. Interpretation of these scenes tell us what we know about Mithraism.

Astronomical and Cosmological Interpretation

The imagery of the tauroctony is ancient. Only in the period from around 4000 BC to 2000 BC did the sun rise at the equinox in the constellation Taurus. As the sun rose, the bull disappeared in the dawn glow—the bull had been slain. Most of the other symbols found in the tauroctony were constellations along the celestial equator at this time. The bull is Taurus, the dog is Canis Minor, the snake is Hydra, the raven is Corvus and the scorpion is Scorpio. As the rising sun illuminated the night sky, these constellations along the horizon faded away. First to go was the bull of Taurus because the sun was rising in that constellation. Sometimes a lion and a cup were added to the tauroctony, apparently symbols of the constellations Leo and Aquarius, which were the constellations in conjunction with the sun at the solstices in the age of Taurus.

This epoch was when the astronomer priests of Akkadia were making the first accurate astronomical observations and describing the celestial patterns which later spread everywhere as the zodiac. They divided the year according to the celestial sign of the rising sun but the sun does not forever rise in the same place each month. The plane of the equinoxes slowly rotates backwards at a rate of one constellation every 2160 years and the entire zodiac every 25,900 years.

The fixed association of the months with zodiacal signs is that of the age of Taurus because 21 March is still deemed the beginning of the month of Taurus. In fact, today the spring equinox is in the constellation of Pisces. Formerly it was in Aries and in a hundred years time we shall have entered the age of Aquarius, but Taurus remains the sign associated with the spring equinox not Aquarius. In other words once the association of signs and months was made, it remained fixed, even though the heavens seemed to be rotating as the equinoxes precessed. This is the origin and nature of Mithras the cosmic bull-slayer—an aspect of the sun god—the equinoctial sun rising in Taurus.

Now the sun is normally shown separately from Mithras in the pictures of the Mithraic legend that we have. How can that be if Mithras was the sun god himself—inscriptions confirm he is sol invictus, the unconquered sun? The Mithraists apparently considered Mithras, the unconquered sun, as a sun beyond the sun—a supermundane or spiritual sun beyond the sphere of the fixed stars. From the time when the sun was identified with the equinoctial bull to the time of the rise of Mithras in the Roman Empire, at least 3000 years passed, long enough for an astronomic religion to evolve into a spiritual one, but the seeds of the idea go back to the Aryan origins of Mithraism.

The Aryans who went on into India took twin sun gods with them, Varuna and Mitra. Neither was the sun itself, Surya, which manifested itself in twelve different forms, plainly corresponding to the zodiac. The Persian holy book, the Zend Avesta, had an equivalent pair, Mitra (or Mithras) and Ahura. The word ahura is related to the name of the Assyrian sun god Assur and the Indian word asura which is cognate with Surya, the sun. Mitra is from the Persian word, mihr, meaning sun. Thus the Iranians had a pair of sun gods, Ahura and Mithras, just like their brothers in India.

Different Persian sects chose one or other of the sun gods as the main one. Zoroaster, who sought to promote monotheism, and the Persian Achaemenian kings favoured Ahura, calling him Mazda, the wise sun. He was always a spiritual sun, pictured as a benign old man in sculpture merely as an artistic convention just as the transcendental Hebrew god is. He was served by "bounteous immortals," one of whom was Mithras. As a sun god, Mithras saw all things. The Avestan Yasht dedicated to him describes him as having a thousand ears, ten thousand eyes, and as never sleeping.

Mithras was thus retained in the Persian religion, appaerently contrary to Zoroaster's intentions, as the face of God—the visible manifestation of an invisible and distant god. He it was who stood for the Good Spirit against the bad one, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the Persian Satan. Later Mithras, who many must have found hard to distinguish from Ahuramazda, took the characteristics of the supreme god. In a hymn to Mithras in the Avesta, Ahura Mazda tells the prophet Zarathustra that when he created Mithras: "I made him as worthy of worship as myself." This accolade is given to no other Amesha Spenta. Something happened akin to the deification of Jesus in Christianity. Jesus was identified with the archangel Michael, who was the face and power of God. Soon Jesus became God! Mithras became God, too.

Furthermore, in Persian cosmology the sun and moon were located beyond the stars. Zoroaster, whose name can be read as sun-star, taught that the sun was situated above the fixed stars. So, the origin of the key ideas of Mitraism, a sun god and a spiritual sun god who dwelt beyond the stars, was Iranian.

Platonists had the same beliefs more clearly expressed and it seems most likely that when Mithras was adopted by the Romans a Platonic philosophy was welded on to the ancient god. In Plato's Republic the sun is the source of all illumination and understanding in the visible world while the Good is the supreme source of being and understanding in the world of the forms, the intelligible world. Zoroaster lived seven years on a mountain in a cave decorated as the cosmos. Plato also symbolizes the world as a cave. The cave dwellers have to ascend to the world beyond the cave to receive the rays of the sun. The ascent from the cave is an allegory of the ascent of the immortal soul.

Hellenistic people believed that after death the human soul ascended through the seven heavenly spheres to an afterlife in the pure and eternal world of the stars. It was a dangerous journey, requiring passwords to be given at each level of the journey, and people were buried with small gold medallions inscribed with the words. Plato, in Phaedrus, describes explicitly the ascent of the soul to the realm outside of the cosmos (upon the back of the world), effectively heaven or paradise. Here dwells True Being which reason alone can perceive, and Good is the power. The supermundane sun, the Good or the True Being which reigned over this transcendental region was seen by the Mithraists as Mithras. Thus his appeal was as the god who helped and protected the soul in reaching the highest heaven, beyond the dome of the stars.

About the time of Jesus, Philo wrote of God as the intelligible sun or hypercosmic star. Later the Neoplatonist, Plotinus, told the same story, that the sun in the divine realm is Intellect which sustains soul—if Intellect dies, soul dies. Later still the Neoplatonist Emperor Julian wrote in Hymn to Helios that the sun moved in the starless heaven beyond the fixed stars. For almost a millennium the idea of a second sun beyond the cosmos was a constant of Classical thought. Platonists like Numenius, Cronius, and Celsus were Mithraists, so it is inconceivable that Platonist ideas did not influence Mithraism where we also find two suns, Helios, the god of the physical sun, and Mithras, unconquerable sun beyond the stars.

If Mithras was seen as a spiritual sun, a god of the whole cosmos, then he must have been understood in a transcendental sense as outside of the cosmos. This explains the Mithraic motif of the birth of Mithras from a rock. Mithras emerges from the top of a round rock, which is usually shown Orphic style with a snake around it. The Orphics also had an idea of a spiritual sun. Indeed Mithras is sometimes shown being born from a cosmic egg, just as Phanes is born of the cosmic egg in Orphic representations. The Mithraic cave and the Orphic cosmic egg both were the cosmos. In the rock-birth scenes Mithras is almost always shown holding a torch, the symbol of a sun. Franz Cumont, the scholar disparaged by Christians for revealing our knowledge of Mithraism, described much of this solar theology in 1909.

So Mithras the Bull Slayer evolved into a spiritual god of the whole cosmos and was depicted, like Atlas, supporting the cosmic sphere, depicted with the constellations reversed, because they were seen from the other side! The statue of Atlas Farnese similarly depicts the cosmic globe, bearing the constellations as they would appear from outside the universe.

Mithraic Practice and Christianity

Initiates of the Mysteries of Mithras had to be ritually pure and were purified by baptism, as we are told by Tertullian, a third century Christian from North Africa. There were seven levels of initiation, one for each of the seven planets and each with its symbol, the highest level being that of the Father, Pater. From the lowest these grades were Corax (symbol—a raven, planet—Mercury), Nymphus (a male bride, Venus), Miles the first grade of full membership (a soldier, Mars), Leo (a lion, Jupiter), Perses (a Persian, Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (a charioteer of the sun, Sol, the sun), and finally Pater (a father, Saturn). Those who reached Pater could lead an assembly. Quite unlike Christianity, members of the cult of Mithras were not stopped from being members of other cults.

At the level of initiation called Miles or soldier, the mystae of Mithras were symbolically branded, the priest making the sign upon their foreheads to redeem their sins and to mark them as soldiers of Mithras ready to fight the Good Fight. Tertullian complains that the Devil was imitating the Christians' divine mysteries because initiates of the Mithraic religion were baptised in this way, and we can be sure the sign made was that of the cross. The mythological justification was Zoroastrian, that good creation was in warfare with evil creation, and these soldiers were soldiers of the good creation.

Christians use the expressions soldiers of Christ and put on the armour of light, somewhat inappropriate metaphors for a religion of love, one might think, but entirely appropriate to their Mithraic origins. Above the rank of Leo votaries were called participants because they participated in a sacred meal. Below the rank of Leo, Mithraists were called servants and served the higher levels—the similarity with Essenism is striking. Participanats committed their everlasting loyalty to the saviour god, Mithras, in his fight against evil. Plutarch tells us that their reward was to be returned to life in the restored world at the eschaton.

Justin Martyr, in his first Apology, says the arrangement of the grottos, with benches on either side of a table, was because the Mithraic central ritual was a sacred meal of bread and water, that he himself compared to the Christian Eucharist. He complained that Satan had copied the Christian Eucharist because the adherents of Mithras also partook of consecrated bread and water symbolic of the incarnate god's body. The bread consisted of small round cakes—each marked with a cross!

Mithraic language and symbolism are widespread in the New Testament. The Dayspring from on High, the Light, and the Sun of Righteousness are all Mithraic (or Essene) expressions used of Jesus. Mithras was born out of a rock—Theos ek Petros—and Christian imagery shows the stable, in which Jesus was born, as a cave. (The infant Mithras was adored by shepherds who brought him gifts.) It was not originally oppression that led the early Christians to use catacombs for worship but simply a desire to copy the practice of the worshippers of Mithras. They decorated their catacombs with paintings, one of the most popular ones being of Moses striking the rock. Mithras, struck a rock to produce water for his followers to drink! The most popular picture of all however was Christ as the Good Shepherd. Mithras too was the Good Shepherd.

The Cilicians introduced Mithraism to Rome. The chief city of the Cilicians and one of the main centres of Mithraism was Tarsus, home of St Paul. When Paul writes (1 Cor 10:4):

They drank of that spiritual rock... and the rock was Christ,

he leans significantly toward the Mithraic idea of the God from the Rock, as does Jesus when he says (Mt 16:18):

Upon this rock I will build my church,

referring to Peter.

Both Mithraism and Christianity introduced symbolic sacrifice: Mithraists by depicting the sacrifice of the bull prominently in their churches and Christians by images of the crucifixion of Jesus and the symbolic drinking of his blood in the communion. The shedding of animal blood was originally a substitute for the shedding of human blood. The bull is interchangeable with a ram—the Ram in the Persian Zodiac is a lamb. So Mithras can also be sacrificed as a lamb just as Jesus is the Paschal Lamb. Remember Mithras is also the seven spirits of goodness just as the Book of Revelation has a slain lamb with seven horns and seven eyes representing the seven spirits of God. Easter when the Paschal Lamb was eaten was a Mithraic festival. In the seventh century the church tried to suppress pictures of Jesus as a lamb precisely because of its Pagan associations.

The Church took most of its features from Pagan mystery religions: vestments, pomp, ritual, mitre, wafer. When Western fundamentalist Christians try to argue that the Church took nothing from the mystery religions, they are not only arguing against sceptics and atheists, they are arguing also against the millions of protestant Christians whose protest was precisely that the Roman Church had adopted Pagan, largely Mithraic, practices.

The Vatican Hill in Rome considered sacred to Peter was previously sacred to Mithras. The cave of the Vatican was a Mithraeum until December 25, 376 AD, the birthday of the sun god, when a city prefect suppressed Mithraism and seized the grotto in the name of Christ. Mithraic artefacts found in the Vatican Grotto were taken over by the Church.

The head of the Mithraic faith was the Pater Patrum, the 'Father of Fathers,' who sat in the Vatican cave. The Mithraic Holy father wore a red cap and garment and a ring, and carried a shepherd's staff. The head of the Christian faith, the bishop of Rome, adopted the same title and dressed himself in the same manner, becoming the 'Papa' or 'Father'—the Pope—who subsequently sat literally in the same seat in Rome as the Pater Patrum! The throne of St Peter at Rome is older than the Church. From the carved motifs decorating it, it was Mithraic.

All Christian priests, like Mithraic priests, became 'Father', despite an editor of Matthew's specific repudiation of this and several other rival religious habits on Jesus's behalf:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10)


The Magi, priests of Zoroaster, wore robes displaying the sword of Mithras. Identical robes are worn by Christian priests to this day. Why is the Pope's crown called a tiara, a Persian headdress? Why do Christian bishops wear a divided tiara called a mitre? Did they adopt the habit from Mithras's priests who wore a mitra (Greek) to signify their office and the duality of the world. Mithraists commemorated the ascension of Mithras by eating a mizd, a sun-shaped bun embossed with the sword (cross) of the god. This "hot cross bun" as the mass was adapted to Christianity and eventually degenerated to the communion wafer, though it is still the same design, in Catholic churches at least.

In the fourth century, Constantine effectively merged Mithraism with Christianity and the other solar cults of the Empire under the control of the Christian bishops. Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Gratian had been pontifex maximus, high priest of the Roman gods. When Theodosius refused the title as incompatible with his status as a Christian, the Christian bishop of Rome had no such qualms about taking the title. Patriarchal Pagan purists as well as worshippers of Isis defied official syncretism for a few hundred more years but after the beginning of the fifth century, the bishops were confident enough to purge Pagan religions. Paganism survived precariously for a while but illegally.

Holy Days

The Christian Bible has no calendar of holy days and at first Christianity had no festivals, holy days or Sabbaths. When the Saviour might arrive on a cloud at any moment, one has little interest in constructing calendars. To gentile Christians all days were the Lord's day so there was no basis for separating out just some of them. As hopes of an early return faded, the traditional festivals of Passover and Pentecost, the latter from the Essenes' Festival of the Renewal of the Covenant, were remembered as commemorating the crucifixion and the events of Acts. But, once Christianity became a state institution, principles gave way totally to pragmatism and holy days were introduced to front Pagan festivals which people had become accustomed to celebrating and which could not easily be suppressed.

The great festivals at Easter in honour of Attis and other gods were popular and had to be given a Christian raison d'etre. The church was quite open about this as a letter of Pope Gregory in 601 AD shows, but it might come as a shock to many Christians to know that Christmas, Easter, the Assumption, the feast of John the Baptist, the feast of St George and the fast of Lent are all Pagan.

The Christian Sabbath is also Pagan. The Babylonians adopted a seven day week based on the cycles of the moon and directed that certain types of work should not occur on certain days called Sabbaths. The seven days of the week were early identified with the seven known planets beginning with the sun. The first day was therefore dedicated to the sun and the last day to Saturn. But the god Saturn was considered unlucky so no work was risked on his day. The people commissioned by Cyrus to leave Babylonia and set up a temple to Yehouah adopted the Babylonian habit of not working on a Saturday. The story of the Jewish Sabbath, the day when God in the creation myth rested from his labours, was devised to offer an explanation for the custom they had adopted.

Subsequently, the Jews imposed such a strict interpretation on the day of rest that a man could be executed for lighting a fire on the Sabbath and the scriptures record that, in the time of Moses, a man was indeed executed merely for gathering fire wood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36). It was, of course, an exemplary tale written after the Babylonian exile and not by Moses himself as legend has it.

Early Christians believed that Jesus had repealed laws on the Sabbath and did not include observance of it in his ordinances. Even Paul attacked the Galatians for observing a special day as holy and he repeated his view in his letter to the Colossians. In the second century Irenaeus confirmed that Jesus had cancelled observance of a Sabbath. Tertullian added in the third century that Sabbaths were unknown to Christians. The church fathers, Victorinus, Justin, Clement, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cyril, Jerome and others were all emphatic that Christians knew no Sabbath!

There was a whole tradition in the Roman world of having Sunday as a sacred holiday and the early gentile Christians found it convenient to match it. Obviously Sunday was a special holy day for sun worshippers which included the worshippers of Mithras. Mithras was called Dominus, the Lord, and his sacred day was Sunday. So Sunday was The Lord's day long before the Christians took it as their sacred day. Because of the remnants of Nazarene tradition associating Jesus with the sun, justified by Malachi, and backed up by the tradition that Jesus had risen from the dead on a Sunday, it became customary even in the first century for Christians to meet on a Sunday. For Christians Sunday also became the Lord's Day. Irenaeus and Tertullian both thought the Lord's Day should be a day of rest but plainly there was no adoption of any strict observance of it, though it was regarded as a special day.

In 321 AD Constantine, still not officially a Christian, ordered that the "venerable day of the Sun" should be a compulsory day of rest. And so it became, gradually taking on a stricter religious purity so that, despite the protestations of Luther that people should dance and feast on that day, the puritans took it over and turned it into a day to rival that of the Mosaic Law of the post-exilic Jewish priesthood!

Mithraism eventually died out after its suppression by the Christians in 376-377 AD. By then its doctrines and ceremonies had been absorbed into Christianity so it had little basis for an independent existence. The two religions had almost everything in common: a divine Lord who offered men salvation; a sacramental meal; baptism; the idea of the believers being crusaders against evil; an ultimate judgement of the soul; ideas of Heaven and Hell; a high moral code.

Ernest Renan, a Catholic scholar who wrote a famous Life of Jesus, believed that if it were not for Christianity we should all today be worshippers of Mithras. The reasons for the success of Christianity were its overwhelmingly syncretic nature, the admission of women, the expropriation of the Jewish Scriptures, and the claim that the Christian incarnate god was a historic figure.

Tertullian, whose father was probably a Mithraist, says the initiation of the soldier, the third rank, but the first of full membership, was by his being offered a crown on the point of a sword. He was not to accept the crown and instead declare that Mithras was his crown! Not only does this ritual evoke the temptation of Jesus, but the crown spoken of was plainly the solar halo, and the sword a cross! Augustine of Hippo, S Augustine, admits the two religions had effectively merged when he claimed that the priests of Mithras worshipped the same God he did. Mithras was Jesus.

Christian Arguments

Most Christians dismiss the worship of Attis and of Mithras as of no general importance in the Empire until later than the New Testament time, not until the second and third centuries in the case of Mithras worship. Edwin Yamauchi, a Christian archaeologist and polemicist, says:

Those who seek to adduce Mithra as a prototype of the risen Christ ignore the late date for the expansion of Mithraism to the west... [Most] dated Mithraic inscriptions and monuments belong to the second century (after 140 AD ), the third, and the fourth century AD.

Never trust a Christian. The earliest remains of a church building, at Dura-Europos, date from 230 AD, and nothing else is found until the end of the third century, yet there are many earlier Mithraea. Plainly, the worship of Mithras was well ahead of the worship of Jesus. In any case there is a dated pre-Christian Mithraic inscription of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 BC) in eastern Asia Minor. Mithras shakes hands with the King, he wears the Phrygian cap, the Persian trousers, and a cape. His hat is star speckled and rays of light emerge from his head like a halo. His torq is a serpent. This is the image of the Roman Mithras in a scene taking place 100 years before the crucifixion.

There were worshippers of Mithras in Rome in Pompey's time (67 BC). There is a first century inscription contemporary with the earliest Christians from Cappadocia and one from Phrygia dated to 77-78 AD. Sanctuaries to Mithras existed in Rome and Ostia in the first century. Another inscription in Rome dates to Trajan's reign (98-117 AD), and the Christian Father, Justin Martyr, mentions Mithraism in about 140 AD. Despite this Christians say the real diffusion of Mithraism only begins at the end of the first century.

Christians are more defensive about Mithras than perhaps any other pre-Christian Roman god. The two religions had so much in common, it can hardly be denied although Christians will try to deny it as a first shot. Their second shot is that the followers of Mithras copied the Christians! Christians feel obliged to take silly positions on these issues because they seek to defend Christianity as a revealed religion, not one which evolved in a certain milieu and therefore has common features with contemporary religions. So, no religious practices that seem in any way to be like any Christian ones could have been original—they must have been taken from Christianity!

Their third shot is even more tenuous. Critical scholars were Christians and tended to interpret one cult by another including Christianity. They aimed to construct a general mystery theology or common mystery religion. Starting with the Christian ideas they already had in their heads, they interpreted the mystery religions and found Christian ideas in the mysteries having unconsciously put them there when they were not really! As we saw, St Augustine admitted that the priests of Mithras and he both worshipped the same abstraction. Even Christian saints therefore were subject to this methodological carelessness. They too were projecting Christian ideas! Oh, and their claim that the similarities came from demonic imitation of Christian rites was made only so that the Church Fathers could make apologetic capital out of the analogy. It is all Christian obfuscation necessitated by their absurd beliefs. They have muddied the waters of history for far too long.

The Greeks themselves never favoured Mithras worship because it came from the religion of their traditional enemies, the Persians. But Persian influence went into Greece by other routes. Greeks philosophers, if not Greek peasants, were never so bigoted that they thought there might not be anything to learn from their enemies. Plato was probably influenced by Persian religion and thought just after the time when the Persians had been the greatest threat. Later the Mithraists took back into their religion Platonic ideas through the neo-Platonists. The Christians did the same while decrying Pagan practice.