More than 200 temples dedicated to the worship of Mithras have been found from Britain to Syria, along the Rhine and into Italy. They’re buried under Christian churches and nestled away in natural caves, with imagery that remains constant across a huge territory and has been preserved for thousands of years. The rise of Christianity snuffed out the cult of Mithras, and what remains are some tantalizing clues to what lay at the heart of this secret cult.
10. Cult Origins
Today, we think of the worship of Mithras as “Mithraism,” but that’s a fairly recent title. Older references to the religion call it either the Mysteries of Mithras or even the Mysteries of the Persians, making the connection between the god and his Persian origins clear. The cult had a major stronghold in the Roman empire, and those Roman subjects who practiced it considered themselves Persian in a cultural respect. Those ancient Romans traced their cult’s lineage back to Zoroaster, but where the cult started is much less clear.
For about the 200 years leading up to 2800 BC, Mithras (who’s also known as Mitra, Meher, Meitros, Mihr, and Mehr) is mentioned in the occasional text with little real information or context. It’s thought that 2800 BC is something of a major turning point in Mithras’s career as cult god, but no one’s really sure what sparked his rather meteoric rise in popularity. After that year, there’s a major spread of references reaching out eastward into China and west through Europe and then across the entire Roman empire. By the time that empire was at its height, there were hundreds of temple to Mithras scattered across their territory, and even as the popularity of Mithras faded, the caves used in his worship remained holy sites. One of the largest temples ever found in Italy has religious ties today: The Church of St. Clemente was built above it.
The original Persian Mithras was a far cry from the one frequently depicted in European murals. Known as The Mediator, he occupied a position between Ahura-Mazda, the light, and Ahriman, the dark. By the time he was adopted by the Armenians, he became associated with the caves that would be integral to his later worship. According to their tradition, he confined himself to a cave and emerged only once a year in a symbolic rebirth. When he made it to China with the expansion of the Persian empire, he was The Friend, but for some reason Greece was virtually untouched by the cult of Mithras.