Mithraism, the worship of the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, Mithra, became early Christianity's most serious rival as the mystery cult rapidly spread from Syria and Anatolia throughout the Roman Empire reaching into Gaul and Britain. Its cultic origins remain obscure. Although the focus of the cult was the Persian god Mithra--who is the chief ally of Ahura Mazda, the force of good in later ZOROASTRIANISM--Western worship of Mithra had few connections with Zoroastrianism apart from its emphasis on the eternal struggle between good and evil. There were seven grades of initiation into the cult, completion of which conferred immortality. Most important was the slaying of the bull, a reenactment of Mithra's killing of the cosmic bull of creation, symbolizing the conquest of evil and death. Astrology and Sun worship also played a role in Mithraism.
Introduced into the West in the 1st century AD by Roman soldiers who had fought against the Parthians, the cult remained particularly popular among the military--the god embodied such soldierly values as victory, courage, and loyalty--and merchant classes. Women were excluded from the cult. One of the most powerful religious movements in the Roman Empire by the 4th century, Mithraism, along with other non-Christian sects, suffered persecution after the conversion of Constantine and gradually died out. Significantly, Mithra's birth was commemorated on December 25.
Tamara M. Green
Bibliography: Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, 2d rev. ed., trans. by Thomas J. McCormack (1956; repr. 1984); Hinnells, J. R., ed., Mithraic Studies, 2 vols. (1975); Laeuchli, Samuel, ed., Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome (1967); Vermaseren, M. J., Mithras: The Secret God, trans. by Therese and Vincent Megaw (1963); Wynne-Tyson, Esme, Mithras (1958; repr. 1985).
In actual fact, Mithraism existed some 400 years before the dawn of the Christian cult. Paul/Saul of Tarsus was brought up in the Mithratic religion and was responsible for the creation of the Christian cult using his Mithras religion as a basis. This is why Christianity contains much of the previous Mithras rituals and ideologies. - f.l.r.