|Blog Home||Mithra by Aashrai Arun|
by Aashrai Arun
He can be everywhere. He can be nowhere. He can know everything, and yet teach you nothing. He can be as kind to you as your own mother. Or He could be as horrifyingly ferocious as your worst nightmare. Rewarding to the good man, unforgiving to the evil.
Mithra has always been a pleasant enigma in the entirety of the Indo-European world. His presence has been that of a less known spirit which oversees the rise, evolution and in many cases - the downfalls as well of various civilizations. And yet, His being has captured the image of thousands of thinkers, poets and sages for centuries. People could feel they knew everything about Him and yet, feel they know nothing about Him. Through the ages, He has been that one image of adoration and awe alike, who has had a presence in the psyche of men of all sorts.
'He who makes the Sun rise above the mountains and hills racing forth before all other divinities born by swift radiant steeds' - Mihr Yasht, Khordad Avesta
Warriors aspired to fight like Him. Sages aspired to know as much as Him. Troubled souls asked Him to enlighten their paths and those who faced injustice found justice in Him. In all the adoration and reverence that He received, men of all ages forgot His possible roots. And tragically, as goes the ignorance and darkness that so easily covers the consciences of men, Mithra was forgotten and often times his altars were torn down. In all the needless tumult, Mithra has been reduced to a lost God. But not always was He torn down and out of history with violence. Many a time, His followers just forgot Him and began redistributing His qualities among other Gods. A little bit of Mithra can be found everywhere today throughout the vast cultural spread of the Indo-European civilizations.
The birth of Mithra
Before gaining a mythical angle to their creations, Gods are always born in the conscience of men. And in this regard, Mithra was no different and certainly was one of man's most primordial of thoughts. The thought of the primordial man is always reflected in the earliest words he used to express those thoughts and we come down to the meaning behind the usage of the word 'Mithra.'
'Mithra' is most often thought to be made of two parts - Mi + thra-
'Mi' is thought to mean 'bind'. It may very well be the Indo European root that gave rise to the English 'mix.'
'Thra-' is a root that often occurs as a suffix and a verb generating root by itself. 'Thra-' occurs in Vedic Sanskrit in the sense of 'protecting' or 'keeping well.' In Avestan, it takes the same meaning. As the oldest surviving texts that extensively speak on Mithra happen to be the Vedas and the Avesta, much of what we understand from these works tells us that Mithra was an answer to some of man's most primordial insecurities.
In the second hymn of the Rigveda's 1st mandala, He appears as a being of 'holy strength' who along with Varuna protects and preserves. The two beings Mithra and Varuna are looked upon as foe-destroyers and keepers of law. The word used here for 'law' is 'rta' and therefore, this 'law' must be understood as cosmic order rather than the literal english word 'law.'
Added to this, we notice that Mithra adds to the strength of Varuna in the same hymn. In the 15th hymn of the first mandala, Mithra is coupled with Varuna who now have mastery over the weather. In the 14th hymn of course, to Mithra are attributed 'beings', although the word for 'beings' coincides with the Avestan word Dhama - meaning 'being'/'creature'. In my personal interpretation, Mithra is seen as a master of beings as in this hymn, Agni the fire God is being explicitly told to drink in honour of Mithra's beings.
Mithra occurs throughout the Rigveda as a qualification to Varuna and an enhancer to His strength. Mithra quite quickly loses His personal image and is taken as a being that adds to other gods. However, the first mandala is replete with Mithra as an individual being in which capacity He is called most often as 'a being of might.' As to the kind of might - we know little to nothing. Mithra's second greatest attribute here is 'law.' He is a balancer of forces and is often called 'jyotishah' patih' - lord of light. Of course, he is seen as shining the light of cosmic law which shows that apart from being a base level protector deity, He has graduated to a keeper of forces, beings and divine law.
The narration's very mysterious element of relegating Mithra to a background view and yet visibly showing his importance in a background sort of manner adds to the enigma. Often, Mithra is said to possess 'dhiyah' - divine knowledge. And this seemingly mystical image projected of Him makes his knowledge something mystically worth yearning for and it is less wonder that he starts fascinating a lot of Indo-European civilizations.
In the Avesta however, Mithra is through and through a protector. The oldest section of the Avesta - the Gathas of Zarathushtra refer to Mithra as a Lord of wide pastures, an all seeing being of a thousand eyes and ears, and a 'provincial ruler' which goes by the title of 'Kshathrapaiti.' This protector image of Mithra in the Gathas is not one bit surprising given that cattle herding and pastoralism were things that lasted in Iran for a much longer time than in the Indic/Vedic lands. And hence, cattle raiding is no doubt a threat in such a civilization. The most repeated epithet of Mithra seems to be 'lord of the wide pastures' which tells us a lot about how Zarathushtrian era Iranic peoples must have viewed Mithra as a being that kept watch over the pastures and all the beings therein.
When we go a little ahead in time to the era of the Videvdat (whose Avestan is younger than that of the Gathas), an entire Yasht (chapter) has been presented in detail about Mithra and this chapter - known to us today as the Mihr Yasht is by far the most detailed and complete representation of Mithra in any surviving Indo-European tradition. Mithra is seen making the sun rise of the Hara-Bareza mountains, smashing the skulls of demons and liars, and punishing greatly those who deceive and lie.
The level of hysteria in the Yasht is remarkable and the fact that it is one of the longest sections of the Avesta, makes it only too obvious as to the importance Mithra occupied in the minds of every Iranic civilization from pre-Zarathushtrian to post Zarathushtrian times. Mithra is simultaneously a benign deity who brings about the beauty of sunrise, as well as a ruthless bringer of justice who is asked to punish ruffians, brutes, liars thieves and barbarian hosts to enemy nations who attack the Aryans. In the first 15 stanzas itself, Mithra is a justice giving, all seeing war God.
It is quite easy to see why the Parthians created chivalrous orders centred around Mithra's cult and recruited their finest warriors from their midst. The first 20 verses of the Yasht state how charioteers and horsemen offer a prayer to Mithra before riding off to battle. Apart from being a soldiers' deity, Mithra is also seen as the ideal ruler, leader, governor and fighter. All in all, the Iranian peoples (at least the knights and nobles) right from the late Avestan era have begun to create an image of an ideal ruler, and an ideal person itself. And to be more and more like this image is what they aspire.
Mithra was an all important chief God in pre-Zrathusthrian times. As said by Ferdowsi, the temple of Adur Burzin Mihr in Khorasan was a Mithraic fire rededicated to the Yazata Mithra by Zarathushtra who preached that Ahuramazda and not Mithra was supreme. Even before this time, the shrine was a place of worship for the many tribal confederations of Iranians. In his Cyropedia, Xenophon mentions that the central Asian Saka tribes (Scythians) revered Mithra in the form of a Sun God and a sky God. It is therefore no surprise that one of mankind's earliest chief Gods was Mithra.
Mithra in daily life
The idea of a chivalrous soldier God seems to have reached Roman and Greek lands from their contacts with Iran. But what we observe with Roman Mithras is a very Vedic aspect - Bull sacrifice.
The black Yajurveda itself states that a barren cow or a bull was sacrificed for Varuna and His now-counterpart Mithra. This practice was not mainstream in the Vedic lands but may have been practised by the more outlandish border tribes such as the Daradas (Kalash) and the Pakthas (Pashtus). The Iranian lands did see heavy animal sacrifice permeate into Zoraostrianism itself during Parthian times and right down to the times of Emperor Shapuhr II (as stated in his own inscription), the sacrifice of goat and sheep were done at fire temples. This practice stopped in the 4th century CE.
Roman Mithraism was a late creation - it started maybe around the 1st century and went on till the late 4th century till the era of Theodosius I who finished off the mystical faith with armed violence. As for the lands where Mithra was not a mystical cult, His worship was rather obvious and open - in lands like Iran (especially eastern Iran, the Parthian homeland). Mithra's name used by Emperors of Parthian Iran (Mithradates), Pontus and Armenia. The Armenian Mihr-Artavazd was in fact the Armenian version of the same Mithra - the lord of light. Mihr in Armenia is seen with special reverence by the kings of Commagene who built elaborate structures in His honour at the mount Nimrut. In fact, the Armenian festival of Mehekan - a fire festival, was in honour of Mihr and was a time when Iranian Sassanid and Parthian overlords of Armenia received a tribute in the form of horses from Armenia as a gift to mark the sacred day.
Mihr in the Caucasus was further propagated by the presence of Parthian houses there such as the Mihran and Karen Parthav houses. Mithra was to many - an ideal to aspire to. To many other He was the chief representation of all that was visibly and invisibly holy. And yet, we notice one startling thing amidst all the reverence He received in Iranian and Caucasian lands - his disappearance from India.
Mithra was a deity whose vocal importance is always overshadowed by the presence of two Gods in particular - Varuna and Indra. Mithra is undoubtedly a very great god for the Vedic people as even the vaguest mentions of His name carry an aura of fear, awe, pride, mystery, enlightenment and an unknown sense of mysticism. In fact, the Sun God - an immortal, bears 'Mithra' as one of His names among other names. It is indeed strange that such an important and central figure would disappear completely. The disappearance of Mithra seems to be more political than a practical one - for there was no practical reason for His disappearance.
What really happened at the Parushni river banks:
The Indra worshipping king Sudas and his army of Trtsu-Bharata warriors crossed the Parushni river in low tide. Whereas his enemies - an alliance of Alans, Scythians, Sarmatians, Pakthas, Medes - all tried crossing the river during high tide. An unexpected flood at this time scattered their army and the smaller yet better organized Bharata tribe attacked the scattered enemy and overcame them. All their lands passed to the Bharata tribal royalty from whose lineage many of the Kuru kings of the Mahabharata lore descend.
It is no doubt that in the Mahabharata, Arjuna - the son of Indra, is extolled to the high heavens. Mithra's son Karna on the other hand is deceived by the same Indra into giving up his celestial armour and ends up killed by Arjuna on the field of battle - a clear sign that one God now superseded another. But the worship of the Sun was never abandoned. If at all Indra became famous in the Vedic lands, it was only for some time. In the course of time (a few centuries at max), Vaishnavism is on the rise and Vishnu comes to the forefront.
Vishnu starts off in the Vedic texts as the general of Indra, leading his hosts in every major battle of Indra's including the slaying of Vrithra and Vala. However, we notice a strange thing with Vishnu - he has the exactly opposite nature of Indra and yet supports Indra. In the course of time, Vishnu becomes a favourite God of the Rigvedic people and by the time of the closing of the Mahabharata's canon, Vishnu is indeed the supreme God of the Universe and Indra is no more than a low born lustful tyrant whose position has been completely taken by Vishnu.
In the person of Vishnu, His worshippers see the unification of all the Gods of old. Vishnu is increasingly looked upon as a natural unification to the disparate natural forces which the devas and asuras represented. The Bhagavad Gita in fact goes to the extent of stating that Rudra, the Maruts and Varuna - some of the most important Vedic deities, have been unified into Vishnu who now possesses their powers, dominions and in effect, has supplanted them.
And yet, nowhere is there mention of Mithra's unification into Vishnu's being. One could at this point assume that Varuna's unification into Vishnu also automatically unifies Mithra into Vishnu because the latter parts of the Vedas seldom differentiate between Mithra and Varuna. I however choose to believe that Mithra was forgotten to the extent of being allowed to retain His individuality.
Mithra in Sassanid Iran:
Mithra's importance diminished in Iran after the battle of Hormozgan in 224 CE. When Ardakshir I marched into Ctesiphon, he took his regal oaths and his crown in the name of Ahuramazda. At some level, the Orthodox clergy of Parsa had always been against Mithraism as they considered Mithra a mere subordinate to Ahuramazda. However, despite this supposed staunchness of Orthodoxy, the same clergy seemed wholly okay with worshipping Anahita - a Yazad Herself. Many historians over time have speculated that the opposition to Mithraism was more political than practical.
In the Parthian court, worship, kingship and very society was a Mithraic one. Their fires were not even called 'Atash Vahram' (Fire of Vahram/Verethrghna) but rather 'Dar-e Mihr' (gateway to Mithra). It is only with the Sassanid ascendancy that there was a steady reorientation of reverence. The hitherto royally sanctioned chivalrous Mithraic orders were relegated to a secondary position and Verethraghna (a Gathic figure who plays the role of a second fiddle to Mithra) was elevated to primacy. Adur Mihrs and Dar-e Mihrs now became Atash Vahrams.
And so, after military victories, the Sassanids stopped the Parthian practice of dedicating their fires to Mithra but rather dedicated them to Verethraghna. The most prominent evidence for all of this occurs at Naqush-e Rustam wherein not just Mithraism, but Mithra Himself gets relegated to secondary importance. At the site, the rock sculpture depicting the ascendancy of Ardakshir I shows Ardakshir on horseback receiving the ring of kingship from Ahuramazda (also on horseback) while Mithra with the solar halo around His head stands on foot behind Ardakshir's horse holding the royal umbrella for him.
This was clearly an indication that the Sassanids may not have gone just after the Parthian seat of power, but after their faith as well. After the rise of the house of Sasan, only one Parthian house died out in Iran - the royal house of Arshak. However, cadet houses that had earlier split off from this house reigned across the various provinces of Iran. These were about 7 houses in all. The house of Arshak was not wiped out though. Its Armenian branch continued unfettered.
In Sassanid Iran, the faith towards Mithra varied regionally. In lands under princes and governor who were directly from the house of Sasan, Mithraism was not something openly practised nor was it patronized. However, in lands like Kurdistan, the Caucasus, Khorasan and Media, the lands were under the governorship of those Parthian houses who retained their older ways of worship. And therefore, Mithraism continued albeit in a diminished form.
Mithra in the Parthian lands was revered in the famous Parthian Zurkhanehs - wrestling schools which trained fighters for the armies of the Iranian empire. In these schools, Mithra was a revered deity and this tradition was left largely untouched in Sassanid times. However, the Sassanids wished to acquire supreme temporal power over all of Iran's fire temples and therefore, Mithraism was highly confined even within Parthian lands. Given its highly disorganized structure and scripturally non-binding theology, Mithraism could be interpreted in any which way one pleased and above all, this was a major reason as to why it lost out to the more organized Mazdean creed of the Sassanid empire. And no doubt, that was the reason it got wiped out first in Armenia, and later across various Roman lands thanks to a more organized and aggressive Christianity which unlike Mithraism could not tolerate the existence of other faiths.
Manichaeism however hijacked Mithraism in a way. Mani made Mithra into his cult's first messenger - a position which would allow the idea of Mithraism to penetrate deep into Europe and North Africa. In Roman lands, the spread of Parthian Mithraism alongside the Manichean hijacked Mithra now resulted in a strange turn of events - a tale in which Mithra gets crucified and resurrected.
Now let us pause a moment and go to the heart of Germanic and Frankish lands to see what the Romans here are up to. In underground cavernous Mithraeums, tauroctonies are in full swing while winter solstices are a time wherein the time between 23rd and 25th December is being celebrated as the winter solstice - equal lengths of day and night.This time of the winter is in honour of the one divinity that keeps the lands warm and the crops safe - Mithras. The soldiers, peasants and country folk across north Europe celebrated fire festivals added to the cult of Mithras and therefore, Mithras was inextricably bound into the lives of people in these lands. Some of these festivals are visible even today - such as Austria and Germany's Walpurgisnacht - a large fire festival in rural Austria and Germany.
When Constantine decided to convert to Christianity, he in fact only discarded Sol Invictus - the Sun God of Rome. Not Mithras. His army men still followed Mithras with a passion, the disturbing of which may have led to the failure of Christianization itself. In fact, the downfall of Mithraism happened in effect only 300 years after Constantine during the papacy of Gregory I, wherein he destroyed all cultic cave temples and had churches made in their places. So one may ask - what about the staunch Mithraists in the Roman army?
Well, the barbarian invasions took a huge toll on that army and by the time the tatters of that army were finally disbanded in 476 CE following Theodoric I's conquest of Rome, the entire western Roman empire's urban centers were ruled by Ostrogoths, Visigoths and smaller Germanic tribes - most of whose nobilities were Arian Christian. Contrary to popular myth that Constantine single handedly destroyed paganism and Mithraism, it was in fact the Christianized barbarian Germanic tribes who effectively put an end to all paganism.
The last vestiges of pre-Christian western Europe died out during the the Frankish conquests of Clovis I following his baptism to Roman Catholicism. The only time there was a real pagan resurgence in these lands was during two centuries of Viking invasions. But as urban economies were firmly in the hands of the church, Norman adeventurers too ended up converting for economic greed and thus ended North Europe's pre-Christian era.
The hijacking of Mithra by Manichaeism was useful for Christians later in reconciling Mithraists into believing that Jesus was the real first messenger and therefore, was Mithra Himself. This white lie began selling like a hot cake in just a couple of generations. The fir tree dedicated to Mithra was rededicated to Jesus and the winter solstice became the mass of Christ, a.k.a. Christmas.
It was fairly simple to convince Mithraists - who had no written texts at that time, to take up Christianity - which had a text and a liturgy that mimicked Mithraic practices so much that it became fairly believable for many Mithraists to become Christians over time. By the 7th century, the use of force against the increasingly minor remnants of Mithraism was sanctioned by Pope Gregory I. Thus, Mithraism was ended by Christianity in blood.
For ages, Mithra's image has haunted and fascinated historians and thinkers alike. After generations of a resurgent interest in Mithraism, Mithra is back today in all His glory. Mithraic conscience is rising across the world and Mithra finds His place today in every single culture in the Indo-European world. The relevance of Mithra is only compounded by the fact that this largely solar deity represents the one thing dear to man and every creature on Earth - the Sun. Most religions came from the reverence of the Sun and today, as man goes back to his fundamentals, he realized that the Sun as an object of religious reverence is simple and enough.
Mithraism has been such a forgotten phenomenon in history, that often people never understood that the practices they did at their places of worship were in reality Mithraic in origin. Be it the Hindu Brahmin doing his prayers 3 times a days or the baptism of a person by dipping him/her in water - all are Mithraic practices in their origins. The halo behind Jesus's head, the ring around the crucifix's central portion, the fire festivals of Baltic Europe and Iran, the festival of colours in India, the decoration of trees in the winter - all go back to the benign person of Mithra who though the ages has watched His own faith being revered, torn down and being revered again. One might even say that He would have found man's antics throughout the ages quite hilarious.
For at the end of it all, Mithra never changed. Man did.
This is an example of the simplicity of Mithraism and how we can interpret it in our contexts. This is a Mithraic poem written by Alex Zurvan and me (originally written in English by Alex. Made into Rigvedic by me):
मित्र दिवस्पतिः तुभ्यं, गर्जन्ते नो शङ्खाः |
आर्यास्ति उपरि देशानां, त्वमसि उपरि सर्वानां ||
(Mithra Thou son of the clear sky, for you our war horns blare forth.
The Aryan stands above nations, but You stand above all)
वाक्स्वरात् तव मित्र, प्रकंपतः पृथव्याकाशौ |
यजामहे प्रियं श्विन्तं त्वां, त्राता आर्यानां ||
(The sound of Thy voice makes the Earth and sky tremble.
We venerate Thee our beloved holy one, Thou friend of the Aryans.)
इषितं कविभिर्युद्धेगोभ्यः, प्रधनं क्रतुनानीतं |
यजामहे मित्रं त्वां बन्धुः निवृतापस्य ||
(The wise long for spoil in fight for kine brought forth with holy powers. We venerate Mithra - a friend of the mild waters.)
जयसे त्वं पतिः मित्र, सुपुत्र पृथ्वीदिवसोः |
आपनामहे त्वां जन्मदिवसि तव, उग्रमित्र तव उग्राय ||
(Victory to Thee Lord Mithra, the holy offspring of the union of Earth and sky.
We revere Thee on Thy day of birth, for Thy strength oh strong Mithra.)
असुरादित्य ददा क्रतुं नो ऋतवतः, सुक्षत्रं ते स्थापयेम |
दिवसो पुत्र असुरमेध, ज्योतिष्पतिः बृहन्तः ||
(Oh Asura, oh immortal give us righteous people strength so that we may establish Thy rule of order.
Son of the sky and all knowing life giver, Lord of light exalted art Thee.)
पतिः गव्यानां गव्यूतिनां, पतिः हरितरुणानां |
पतिः सुशपथानां, दिवः त्वां प्र दधात् ||
(Lord of pasture lands far and wide, Lord of evergreen trees.
Lord of good contract and oaths, created wert Thou by the sky.)
ईड्यो ते यज्ञं, त्वां मित्रं यजामहे |
हवे तव उग्र क्रतुं, तापय स्वज्योतिभिर्नो |
आ नो गमेते वृष्टिः मेघात् पृथिव्यूर्वरा अनाहिता ||
(Worthy are you of worship, we venerate Thee.
I thus invoke Thy strength, radiate us with your light.
May rain bearing clouds come forth unto us, and may the soil blessed by Anahita come alive with fertility.)
हिमालयं उपरि सरब्रुहतो च, उत्स्थास्यसे महारथो |
अधः सूरचक्शवो ते, भूमयो सन्ति सप्त सिन्धवो |
माज़न्दरात् दृष्टं त्वया आर्यानां क्षत्रं ||
(From the Himalayas you shall rise over the Hara-Bareza's lofty lake and watch over the lands of the Seven Rivers with your eagle eyes.
From Mazandaran you watch over the realm of Iran.)
कदागच्छत् अरबवाचको, अकवाचको दुर्बोधको |
दुर्धर्मो दासकर्तारो विमूढदुष्कर्तारो ||
(When came to our lands the Arab of evil speech, evil learning, evil faith. That enslaver of the free. That ignorant doer of evil deeds.)
त्वं मित्रागच्छ नो सर्वोग्रो, त्राता नो निपातो |
त्वं भगधियरतिबन्धुत्वानां, शस्त्रान् तेषां विदारय |
वज्रेण तव ऋतसत्ययोः, सेनान् तेषां विनाशय ||
(May You come forth oh Almighty Mithra, our protector descending from above.
Thou God of knowledge, love and friendship, may you shatter their weapons.
With your mace of cosmic order and truth, may You destroy their armies.)
प्रत्युक्तं हवान् नाम्नां ते, सैनिकाः प्रगच्छन्ते |
मित्रो योधा बृहन्तो, क्रतुं ददा नो द्यौस्पुत्रो ||
(For when the calls of Your names have been answered, shall the soldiers then march forth.
Oh warrior Mithra exalted, give us strength of son of the dawn.)
मित्रो दिनार्धस्य भगो, दिवं सत्रा तापयो |
शिरस्पादत्राणार्तनौ, सत्रा दक्ष भविष्यामो ||
(Lord of the noontide, keep the day eternally warm,
for we don the helmet and armour for war, keep us eternally vigilant.)
नक्तुं जागृतान्ते मित्र, दिनपर्यन्तं नो भरसे |
निद्रे नक्तुं नो सोमपान्, दिनपर्यन्तं त्वं भरसे ||
(When the watchful day ends at night, may You bear us forth into the next day.
When we drink our heart's fill of the Soma/Haoma and sleep, may You protect us till the next dawn.)
ततक्षिताः त्वया पथबहवो, प्रचोदयन्ति ज्योतिं सत्रा |
मित्र योधा नो दर्शय, ऋतस्य पथे म्रयितुं च ||
(Many paths have you fashioned, all lead to light.
Oh warrior Mithra, show us how to give our lives for the path of righteousness.)
The Eyes of Mithra
The eyes of men perceive what they desire. Seeing the naked truth is something beyond man. And perhaps that is why the truth has been deified beyond human reach. For witnessing desires is human, but seeing the truth is Mithraic.