Mithra or Mithras

Mithra or Mithras

(Greek Μίθρας; Sanscrit Mitra or Mitras), the highest of the twenty-eight second-class divinities of the ancient Persian Pantheon, is generally regarded as the chief of the Izeds (Zend. Yazata), the ruler of the universe. He is spoken of as the god of the sun; but he is more properly the god of day, and, in a higher and more extended sense, the god of light, presiding over the movements and influence of the principal heavenly bodies, including the five planets of the sun and moon. The primary signification of the word Mitra is a friend, and Mithra would therefore convey the representation of light as the friend of mankind, and as the mediator (μεσίτης) between heaven and earth. Protector and supporter of man in this life, he watches over his soul in the next, defending it against the impure spirits, and transferring it to the realms of eternal bliss. He is all- seeing and allhearing, and, armed with a club-his weapon against Ahriman and the evil Devs — he unceasingly "runs his course" between heaven and earth. In this character of mediator, as well as in some other respects, he would seem to approach the character of Agni.

From Persia the cultus of Mithra and the mysteries were imported into Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, etc., and it is not unlikely that in some parts human sacrifices were connected with this worship. In the days of the emperors the worship of Mithra found its way into Rome, and thence into the different parts of the Roman empire, and the mysteries of. Mithra (Hierocoracica, Coracica Sacra), which fell in the spring equinox, became famous seven among the many Roman festivals. The ceremonies observed in the initiation to these ministries — symbolical of the struggle between Ahriman and Ormuzd (the Good and the Evil) — were of the most extraordinary and, to a certain degree, even dangerous character. Baptism and the partaking of a mystical liquid, consisting of flour and water, to be drunk with the utterance of sacred formulas, were among the inaugurative acts. The seven degrees — according to the number of the planets — were, 1, Soldiers;, 2, Lions (in the case of men) or Hyenas (in that of women); 3, Ravens; 4, Degree of Perses; 5, of Orominios; 6, of Helios; 7, of Fathers — the highest who were also called Eagles and Hawks. At first of a merry character — thus the king of Persia was allowed to get drunk only on the Feast of the Mysteries — the solemnities gradually assumed a severe and rigorous aspect. Through Rome, where this worship, after many vain endeavors, was finally suppressed in A.D. 378, it may be presumed that it found its way into the west and north of Europe; and many tokens of its former existence in Germany are still to be found, for instance, such as the Mithra monuments at Heidenheim, near Frankfort-on-the-Main, and at other places.

Among the Persians Mithra is pictured as a young man, clothed with a tunic and a Persian cloak, and having on his head a Persian bonnet or tiara. He kneels upon a prostrate bull, and while holding it with the left hand by the nostrils, with the right he plunges into the shoulder a short sword or dagger. The bull is at the same time vigorously attacked by a dog, a serpent, and a scorpion. The ancient monuments represent him as a beautiful youth, dressed in Phrygian garb, kneeling upon an ox, into whose neck he plunges a knife; several minor, varying, allegorical emblems of the sun and his course surrounding the group. At times he is also represented as a lion, or the head of a lion. The most important of his many festivals was his birthday, celebrated on the 25th of December, the day subsequently fixed — against all evidence — as the birthday of Christ. In the early days of the Church it was not an uncommon occurrence to find an apologist of the inspired teacher laying undue stress on some points of resemblance between Mithraism and Christianity, and thus the triumphant march of the latter was much retarded. In modern times Christian writers have been again induced to look favorably upon the assertion that some of our ecclesiastical usages (e.g. the institution of the Christmas festival) originated in the cultus of Mithraism. Some writers, who 'refuse to accept the Christian religion as of supernatural origin, have even gone so far as to institute a close comparison with the founder of Christianity; and Dupuis and others, going even beyond this, have not hesitated to pronounce the Gospel simply a branch of Mithraism. The ablest reply to these theories we have from Creuzer and Hardwick.

Among the chief authorities on this subject are Sainte-Croix, Recherches historiques et critiques sur les mysteres du paganisme, edited by Sylvestre de Sacy (Paris, 1817); Burnouf, Sur le Yaena, page 351 sq.; Lajard, Recherches sur le culte public et les mysteres de Mithra (Paris, 1847-8); O. Muiller, Denkmaler d. alten Kunst; Creuzer, Mythologie u. Symbolik (2d ed.), 1:238, 261, 341, 714 sq.; id. Das Mithreum (Heidelb. 1838);

Schwenk, Mythologie der Perser (Frankf. 1850); Seel, Die Mithrasgeheimnisse (Aarau, 1823); Hammer, Mithriaka (Vienna, 1834); Dupuis, Origine de tos le cultes, 1:37; Hardwick, Christ and other Masters, 2:431-438. SEE PARSEES; SEE ZENDAVESTA.

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