Mithras, also called Mitra, was popular among the military in the Roman Empire, and the Mystery Cult of Mithras was a potent religious force during the first through fourth centuries A.D. Major rituals included bull worship and sacrifice and a communal feast amongst “brothers” which strongly appealed to Roman legionnaires.
One of the most characteristic features and symbolism of the Mithras Mysteries is the naked lion-headed (leontocephaline) figure often found in Mithraic temples. The figure of Mithras is of a beared man, with four wings, entwined by a snake, holding a sceptre and two keys. Objects at his feet include a caduceus, hammer, tongs, pinecone and cockerel. A thunderbolt is engraved on the breast. Speculations and possible interpretations and connections are:
The four wings carry the symbols of the four seasons
The thunderbolts were also symbols of Zeus (Jupiter), the king of the gods
Keys represent a 'keeper of keys' the ability to unlock entrance to heaven and keeper of the secrets of the cult
The hammer and tongs were associated with Hephaestus (Vulcan), avenging fire was the symbol of the god
The Caduceus means “herald’s staff of office” in Roman and is associated with Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods
The symbols of Aesculapius, the god of healing was a physician's staff, or healing scepter, entwined with a single, large, non-venomous snake. The snake symbolized rejuvenation and healing to many ancient cultures. The cockerel was also sacred to the god Aesculapius
The Pine Cone was the symbol of Cybele the great mother of all the gods and goddess of abundant benefits
Mithras, the Roman god of soldiers, light, truth, and honor
Mithras, or Mitra, was a major figure in the religion known as Zoroastrianism, which originated in ancient Persia (Iran). Mitra was the god of friendship and the sun and served as one of the judges of the dead. Mitra had a dual role and was also the god of war. Mithras was originally worshipped by outsiders of the Roman state such as thieves and slaves. One of the symbols associated with Mithras was the Phrygian cap which symbolised freedom and the pursuit of liberty. Mithras was then adopted by Roman soldiers and the cult of Mithras spread throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman legionnaires merged elements of the cult with 'Deus Sol Invictus' meaning 'Unconquered Sun God'. There were 100's of Temples and sanctuaries dedicated to the adopted god called Mithras. The followers of Mithras were members of an all-male secret society called the cult of Mithras. There are no known women followers of Mithraism. The secret mysteries of Mithras were confined to initiates, had no public ceremonies, and they could only undertake such worship in the secrecy of the Mithraeum. A Mithraeum was a place of worship for the followers of the religion of Mithraism. In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing the sacred bull, this act is referred to as the tauroctony.
The Myth of Mithras
The myth of the god was never fully documented due to the secret nature of the cult, however, the following elements are seen in depictions and iconography relating to the myth of Mithras as follows::
Mithras was born from a rock or cave
Beside a sacred stream and under a sacred tree
Bearing a torch and armed with a knife
He fought the sun god
He captured the sacred bull
Mithras killed the bull inside a cave
He was accompanied by two helpers
A dog, a snake, a raven, and a scorpion also accompanied Mithras
He celebrated a banquet with Sol, the sun god
Mithras died and was buried in a cave
Mithras was resurrected and entered paradise or heaven
Icons and Symbols relating to Mithras
Mithras had two companions, as seen in the top picture, depicted as small torch-bearing likenesses of himself, called Cautes and Cautopatres, that were meant to represent life and death. The cave played an important role in Roman Mithraism and caves became the location of the temples to Mithras (Mithraeum) serving as the hall of congregation for the members of the cult. Astronomical subjects and the zodiac were connected with the icons associated with the cult of Mithraism e.g. the bull and Taurus, the scorpion and Scorpio, the dog by the constellation of Canis Minor and the snake by the constellation Corvus. Other astronomical imagery such as the planets, sun, crescent moon, and stars are often portrayed in Mithraic art. Additional icons relating to the secret cult were included on mosaics. A 2nd-century mosaic depicts several Mithraic implements and symbols at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome.
The Cult of Mithras - the Initiates
The initiates in the cult of Mithras were ranked in a series of seven grades, each grade was named and under the protection of one of the planets. Initiation rituals and ceremonies included ablutions and purifications, ordeals, sacrifices, re-enactments of myth stories, communal feasts and secret and the use of secret passwords and symbols. Some of the ordeals or tests in undergone in the cult of Mithras involved exposure to heat or cold and threatened perils.
The Cult of Mithras, the Freemasons and Christianity
The association of the symbols, rituals and the symbolism used in the cult of Mithras has drawn obvious comparisons to the Freemasons movement. Others have associated the cult of Mithras with Christianity due to similarities in the myth story, the idea of monotheism (meaning the worship of one god as in Christianity) and the Winter solstice festival celebrated in honor of Mithras held on 25 December which was also the date of the popular festival of the sun called natalis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquerable) and therefore specific to the Mysteries of Mithras but linked him to the Christian festival of Christmas.
The Temples of Mithras (Mithraeum)
A temple of Mithras was called a Mithraeum and was a place of worship for the followers of the religion of Mithraism. In every Mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing the sacred bull, this act is referred to as the tauroctony. A temple of Mithras was always located in a small, windowless, rectangular subterranean chamber, or cave. A Mithraeum held between 20 - 30 people. An aisle usually ran lengthwise down the center of the temple. There were stone benches on either or the aisle. At the end of the aisle was always found a representation of the god Mithras depicted in a scene taken from the mythology of the god or depicting a representation of the god and his symbols.