The Mystery Behind the Mithras Cult

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

The Mithras cult was more secretive than many other mystery cults, such as the Eleusinian or the Isis cults. The people of the Mithras cult made their underground temples in natural caves, where the centerpiece was the tauroctony—the equivalent of a Christian altar.

Image shows an ancient underground temple of the Mithras cult.
An ancient Mithras temple found in the ruins of Ostia Antica, Italy. The Mithras temples were called Mithraeums. (Image: Michelle Touton [Ailurophyle]/Public domain)

Secrets of the Mystery Cults

The ancient Greek-Roman mystery cults, or secret societies, including the Mithras cult, guarded their secrets very well. The initiates kept quiet, not divulging anything. As explained by the Egyptian scholar Albert Pike, after being introduced in different countries, they were altered by these countries. However, mysteries metamorphosed and adapted well. and were preserved within the same faiths that had replaced them.

The secret brotherhood and their sacred missions were not visible to anyone except the initiated, but they lived on. The fact is that there were numerous mystery cults, or mystery schools, in the traditional world. All of them intertwined and overlapped each other. And, needless to say, they all maintained top secrecy. For membership in a secret society, the main criterion was the worthiness of the person. And the very fact that not everybody was worthy of becoming a member of the secret societies made them what they were—very special. This way of thinking was fundamental to every mystery cult.

The Mithras Cult

The Mysteries of Mithras, a popular mystery cult, was no different. Most of the things said about other mystery cults were true for it also. Mithras was a Persian god and was also called Mithra. He can be seen in pictures and paintings wearing a Roman fantasy version of Persian dress. But that is all that connects him to Persia. In Persia, the Roman Mithras cult had never been practiced. In fact, the cult originated in Italy, away from Persia, in the first century A.D., and from there it spread to other places. It appears that Mithraism was invented out of whole cloth. But if that was the case, no one took credit for it. The Mithras temples were called Mithraeums. No written records of the Mithras cult are available, probably because they never wrote anything. And no initiate like Apuleius came forward to offer even a glimpse of its mysteries.

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Mysteries of the Mithras Cult

Picture shows Duino Mithraeum in Treiste.
The Duino Mithraeum in the province of Trieste. Mithraea were places of worship for the followers of the Mithraic mysteries. (Image: Bepsy/Shutterstock)

Although most members of the Mithras cult were male it was not exclusive to them. But it is again not clear why that was so? Roman soldiers took Mithraism to many border posts along the rivers Rhine and Danube, and also to Hadrian’s Wall in England. They did so because the Mithras cult was very popular among them. Some representations of Mithras found in their underground temples are the only visible creations available. The main attraction was the tauroctony—similar to the Christian altar. There are paintings depicting Mithras slaughtering a bull. He was always wearing a red tunic and a blue cloak. In what appears to be a sacrifice, he is being helped by a dog, snake, and scorpion with what appears to be the sun god and moon goddess overlooking them. For the uninitiated, it is difficult to understand what it means. In the language of secret societies, “we are not illuminated”. The Mithras cult has a holy sacrament, also, which was the sacred meal of an unsliced bread marked with a cross. This led some people to believe that Mithraism and Christianity were sister religions.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Many Speculations About Mithraic Mysteries

Just like the universe, history also does not like any vacuum. There are so many speculations about the Mithraic mysteries. Some people think of the tauroctony as a celestial map. The stars adorning Mithras’s blue cloak strengthen this belief. Scholar David Ulansey has equated the elements in the pictures to the elements of the constellation. The bull representing the Taurus, the dog representing Canis, the snake representing Serpen, and the scorpion corresponding to Scorpius. Mithras is trying to symbolize the progress in time by slaying the bull. So the big mystery is believed to be the relationship between the movement of stars and the rotation of seasons. Some even say that the Mithras cult was a star cult. Mithras represented Orion. Ancient Greeks believed that Orion, the hunter and killer of beasts, was turned into a constellation by Zeus. The seven grades of initiation of the Mithras cult provide another astrological symbol with each grade representing one of the seven planets that were known at that time.

A statue of Mithras.
A statue of Mithras born from the rock. (Image: Baths of Diocletian/Public domain)

One more common astrological symbol looks like a crescent moon. Many people believe that Mithras, in fact, is the legendary Greek hero Perseus and that the tauroctony represented him killing the monster, in a styled manner. But then the question arises about why he was not called Perseus. Some even believe that Mithras is indeed Jesus. The initiates of the Mithras cult were given names like Persian, lion, and raven. They addressed each other as Syndexioi, meaning ‘united by a handshake’. Signs of mouth, hands, and crescent were used to recognize each other. Mouth and hand were vocal and hand signs, while crescent could be a lucky charm or a mascot. Or it could be a ritualistic scar. These and the special jewelry were not the only similarities between the Mithras cult and later Masonic practices. The eyes of the initiates were covered and they were killed through a ritual and were reborn. This reinforces the theory of reincarnation.

Lastly, there are quite a few similarities between Christianity and the Mithras cult. This is revealed by the clarification of Jesus and his rebirth which is similar to an initiate’s ritual killing and subsequent rebirth by baptism. There is also a similarity with their Eucharist of bread and wine which magically changed to flesh and blood. Christians in early times also called their sacrament ‘mysteries’. Like the Mitharist cult, early Christians also worshipped secretly.

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Common Questions About the Mithras Cult

Q: When was Mithras born?

It is said that Mithras was born on the 25th of December and Jesus Christ was modeled on him.

Q: What are different ancient mystery religions?

Mystery religions were part of one of the three types of religions, namely, Hellenistic religion, imperial cult, and philosophic religion.

Q: What is the meaning of Mithra?

Mithra is a judicial figure and a divinity of contracts. He is also the protector of truth, harvest, and water.

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