By Scott Lowther
Across modern day Europe and Asia Minor, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Turkish border of Syria are scattered hundreds of temple caves known as Mithraeums. Mithraeums are 300’ long by 75’ wide caverns hewn into hillsides, formed from natural caves or built in the cellars of ancient domiciles nearly 2,000 years ago by Roman soldiers, officers, government officials, business proprietors, and freed men. These men (because there are no records of women members) formed an Order or Cult dedicated to the Parthian / Persian God Mithras that lasted from roughly 70 C.E. to 390 C.E.
There are no written records of the rituals and ceremonies performed and only the Mithraeums, most of which luckily survived the total destruction that so many mystery school temples suffered at the hands of the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius in 385 C.E., remain as a source for modern scholars, archaeologists and anthropologists to study. The Mithraeums were fairly uniform in their make up; a central aisle, stone benches on either side of the aisle and a mosaic at the back of the temple cave representing the Tauroctony or Mithras slaying the Great Bull. On the surrounding walls of the cave were engravings of member names, and pictorials of the Zodiac, the seven classical planets and/or the seven grade initiations of the Mithras Order.
To understand why a minor Persian God was of such adoration to the Roman soldier and middle class man we need to rewind time further to the year 55 BCE. In that year, Julius Caesar set out to conquer the barbarian nations and one of his lead generals, a corrupt Roman business leader named Marcus Crassus, set off to conquer the barbarian lands of Persia in modern day Iran. The Persians however, were anything but barbarians. The great Persian Empire had already been in existence for thousands of years, was a world trade leader and was largely multi-cultural with influences from Greece, Mesopotamia, India, Judea, Egypt and Ethiopia.
With an estimated force of 44,000 Crassus met a Parthian force of only 10,000 at Carrhae. We can imagine Crassus’ surprise when his legions faced off with a military force that was 1,500 years before its time namely, knights in shining armor. The 10,000 Parthians rode armored and on armored horses. With precise tactics they utterly crushed Crassus’ and his son’s forces that outnumbered their own by 4:1. The Roman - Persian wars raged on for 720 years but, we note this battle for another more profound significance. The Persian knights and horse archers were unlike their Roman counterparts. The Persians were educated in reading, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy and spiritual mysteries. They owned land as payment for service to the king and lived by a moral code we would now identify with chivalry. The legionnaires, their officers and the business leaders that served on the Eastern front would learn from their Persian counterparts and bring these philosophies and technologies back to Rome and the Northern frontiers.
By concentrating our observation of the Roman Mithras Cult on its cadre of members, their duties in everyday life, and the Parthian, Zodiacal, and Planetary natures of the engravings found within their Mithraeums we can deduce that the Cult of Mithras was not a religion but, in fact was one of the earliest fraternal order mystery schools. The fact that the Order of Mithras met in secret in underground caverns and was an all male society only adds to deepen the contrast between the Order and the pagan religions of the day which met in open air temples and had both male and female members. Even though there are no written records of what was taught in the Roman Order of Mithras anyone with a knowledge of the Western mysteries passed down from Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn can make a highly accurate educated guess.
THE ROMAN MYTH OF MITHRAS.
The Parthian / Persian God known as Mithras only has a small part in the panoply of Gods worshipped at that time. Mithras was a Persian God of contracts, justice, fair dealing and represented order from chaos. In the Persian myth of Mithras he did not slay a bull. It was the duty of the Evil God Arheim to slay the world bull of creation in order to bring about a new world.
Although the Romans still regarded their Mithras as the God of fair dealing and order from chaos, he also represented to them the Logos and/or the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun). The Roman God Mithras was the “go between” mankind and the Divine. He was all knowing and all seeing, just and benevolent. The Roman Mithras ruled the cosmos and was the force that drove the stars around the Earth.
The Roman Mithras’s story begins with his birth from a rock. The naked infant is born with a dagger in his hand and is found by two shepherds that fed him figs and covered his nakedness with the leaves. Later in life, Mithras is commanded by the Gods to capture and kill a great, white, wild bull. Mithras spends most of his early adulthood tracking and chasing this great beast until at last he traps and corners it in a cave. Mithras enters the cave flanked by two torch bearers but, his heart is reluctant to slay the great bull he has spent his life pursuing. With the Sun and Moon looking on, Mithras finds his resolve, pins the beast, grabs it by the nostrils, looks over his shoulder at the Sun and slays the bull with his dagger. While doing so a raven looks on, a scorpion reaches for the testicles of the bull, a serpent slithers up the bull and Mithras’s barking dog jumps upon the bull.
The slain bull yields forth ears of corn, honey and wine. Mithras is at this point joined by the Sun which rides his chariot down to greet the hero. The Sun kneels before Mithras and then rises to shake hands with him. After the Sun’s acts of sublimation and partnership, Mithras and the Sun hold a feast whereby all of the planetary forces attend and the Bull is served as the main course. After the feast, Mithras rides a chariot to the heavens in an apparent apotheosis.
THE MYSTERIES OF MITHRA.
It is important to remember that the ancient form of the word “mystery” is not a word to describe a “who done it” or something unknown. A mystery in the ancient sense is a piece of knowledge that leads mankind closer to the Divine or the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it. To tackle the lessons of the myth of Mithras we’ll need a fair amount of knowledge when it comes to the symbolism of the seven classical planets, the symbolism of the Zodiac and the processes of spiritual or inner alchemy as well as a healthy dose of imagination. Once we understand some of the messages the myth is trying to get across to its initiates we can discern its relevance to us today.
ASTRONOMY OF THE DAY:
First, we’ll tackle the obvious and most objective and easily proven lesson of the Tauroctony. In the 1st century C.E. Herodotus published his findings concerning the procession of the equinoxes. Herodotus noted that the signs of the zodiac move across the heavens one full rotation every 26,000 years (aprx.). He also noted that Sun, measured at the spring equinox, moves through the individual signs of the Zodiac over a course of roughly 2,160 years. Thus we have our ages; the Age of Taurus, the Age of Aries, the Age of Pisces, the Age of Aquarius and so on. In the Geocentric age of the 1st century you could see why the thought of a Divine force that was able to move the stars would have spiritual implications. Some scholars believe that the Tauroctony is a symbolic mosaic depicting the Age of Taurus. During the time of the Sun in Taurus, the constellations that would have been visible at night would have been Scorpio, Hydra and Canis Minor (thus the scorpion, serpent and the dog).
THE ROCK AND THE CAVE:
Some scholars have noted the similarities between the myth of Jesus and Mithras in regard to the birth and ascensions. It is a profane notion that either myth created the other or that one is more “factual” or “historic” than the other. The symbolism of the birth from the rock and the ascension of the cave have to do with the immortality of consciousness. A majority of scholars will admit that the cave is symbolic of the Macrocosm given the amount of Zodiacal and planetary imagery on a Mithraeum’s walls and ceilings but, only a rare few address what a cave looks like from the outside…a rock. Therefore, the Mithra myth is painting a picture, using symbolic correspondence, of a fractal like Universe wherein consciousness is ever regenerating.
As mentioned above, the cave represents the entire space of the cosmos but, the story of Mithras also has a timeline as symbolized by the two torch bearers. One of them holds the torch up (youth) and the other down (old age and death). Our protagonist Mithras is in the prime of mid-life when he faces the bull.
There are conflicting reports on the symbolism of the Bull itself as some suggest it is representative of the shadow unconscious and some say that the Bull represents evil incarnate. While I doubt that Roman soldiers and business leaders would have any inkling of what a shadow unconscious would consist of, I also doubt that they would represent the Bull as evil incarnate because the moral system of the time was not as “black and white” as it is today. The Bull was the life pursuit of Mithras and now in mid-life he has it cornered and the prize is his. He now has to kill his hopes, his dreams, his ambitions which are now manifest before his eyes. If this wasn’t enough to make our hero doubt the benefit of sacrificing his prize the other cast of characters do.
THE CROW, SCORPION, SERPENT AND DOG:
This cast of four characters are on the periphery but, symbolic of the temptation to not sacrifice the Bull. The crow warns that the act is one of death and change. The scorpion grabbing at the testicles shows that the prize kept alive could multiply and increase. The serpent shows that the prize kept alive has the ability to regenerate, change and conform for growth and will bring notoriety. The dog illustrates that there are loyal friends and family that will help manage and tend the prize if kept alive. So why sacrifice the bull?
The act of sacrificing the bull is one demonstrating unselfishness and duty. If Mithras kept the bull alive he would be doing so for the sake of himself within the cave alone. Mithras has no idea that once he sacrifices the Bull that wine, corn and honey will emerge nor does he know that he will gain the service and partnership of the Sun (Immortal Life). Mithras recognizes that he is obligated under contract with the Gods to sacrifice his lifelong pursuit and prize so, he performs the slaying.
After Mithras performs the act of sacrificing the Bull and the elements of new life spring forth then, all of the planetary Gods show up for a great feast. The Sun pledges servitude and partnership with Mithras and Mithras ascends into the next life in a chariot. The message to Roman soldiers and the bourgeois is made clear: Fortune and the Gods favor those that give freely of themselves without thought of their own gain and those that honor their obligations and contracts. Also, consciousness, like life, evolves and there is no sense in lingering in the cave when the Heavens await. It is easy to see how this notion of brotherhood, service, justice, order and charity caught on in a Rome that was thirsty for fair dealings, mercy and a moral compass. It is also easy to see how the belief in an immortal consciousness would appeal to a class of citizenry so used to bloodshed and death.
A MYSTERY THAT WAS NEVER TRULY LOST IS STILL RELEVANT
As Hermetic Magicians and Alchemists we shape our reality in partnership with Nature and the Divine.