Mithraism was a mystery religion that existed in the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th century CE. This mystery religion revolved around the deity Mithras, and had seven degrees of initiation within its cults. As the notion of ‘mystery religion’ might suggest, the cult of Mithras is, well, mysterious, and very little is actually known about it. However, we offer a glimpse into this secretive cult as our story follows the journey of an unnamed Mithraic priest recalling his initiation into the cult of Mithras. We invite any readers to read through our tale, and render mystery a little less mysterious.
These are the meaning of the following terms which will be mentioned in our story below.
Leo: A grade of priesthood within the cult of Mithras
Syndexioi: An initiate into the cult, meaning “united by the handshake”, as initiation into the cult was completed by a handshake with the pater
Pater: The highest grade of priesthood within the cult of Mithras
Mithraeum: Temple dedicated to the religious practices of the Mithraic cult
Cautes and Cautopates: Together a collective representation of Mithra, depicted as torch bearers with one holding his torch the right way up, and the other holding his upside down.
The Tauroctony: A depiction of Mithras found in every Mithraeum, where Mithras is shown slaughtering a bull.
Sol: Sun God in the Roman Empire
“Mithras is our true crown.” These are the words that depart my lips in a ghost of a whisper – words uttered so lightly, but which contained such truth and weight. I breathe these words every day. Whether it is during my meditation, after I have offered the sacrifices to Mithra, or simply during the times I find my mind wandering to unknown places, these are the words that I recite. As a leo of my Mithraic temple, I am charged with the preparation of sacrifices to Mithra. Countless times have carried out my duty, yet each time I am reminded that the sacrifice lies not only within the vessel I present, but also within the rejection of self – we who believe in Mithra are sacrifices in our faith, and Mithras is our true crown. This truth was revealed to me when I had discovered Mithra for the first time as a syndexioi – an initiate into the cult, a momentary speck in my life that changed me for eternity. And I remember it well.
I had first come to learn about Mithra from my cousin Avilius. As Avilius was a somewhat odd fellow, I only believed what he said due to the whisperings I had heard around the village about the mysterious cult, as well as its secretive cave-temple off near the woods, by the stream where I used to play as a child. Ever since learning about them, I had grappled with the idea of joining them. Ponderings about the purpose of life – of the universe and its many mysteries – had overtaken my thoughts and I sought answers. I eventually made up my mind and decided to look for the Mithraic temple, unsure of what I was really going to find. The whispers around my village simply acknowledged their existence and bore little information on what the Mithraic tradition actually taught. Mystery, to me, was preferential over Roman persecution, which is what the Christians received for their refusal to submit to the Roman emperor. The Mithraic temple – or mithraeum as I soon learned – was not as difficult to locate as I had anticipated. True to what I had heard before, it was dug into the side of a rocky outcrop near the crystal clear stream of my childhood. From there, I learned that the cult of Mithra was not just some group you could stroll into. The knowledge guarded by the priests of the cult was sacred, divine even, and was not to be accessed at leisure. Dedication through initiation was required, and to be initiated into the cult was no small matter. That night, I returned home and lay unable to sleep, filled with anticipation at the prospect of the step I was about to take. The step I was about to take into Mithra’s embrace.
The night of initiation had arrived, and I found myself standing at the mouth of the mithraeum awaiting the priest who would take me through the rites. I could hear the babbling of the nearby brook and glanced wistfully at it, completely black save for the flashes of the moon caught in the reflection of the water. I recalled the days I used to play there as a child, then turned back to the mouth of the mithraeum, where I would become a new man and leave that child by the stream. The mithraeum’s entrance was dimly lit by torches mounted on two figures carved into the stone of the temple. One held its torch upwards, while the other held its torch downwards. I had just begun considering the practicality of such design in puzzlement when a voice calling out from the darkness made me jump. “Cautes and Cautopates,” came the voice, as a stooped figure stepped slowly into the soft light, gesturing at the torch-bearers I had been considering prior to being startled. As he stepped forward, I could see that the man who stood before me was old, and looked incredibly frail – as if he would break if you whispered too loudly. Yet for one as aged and wizened as himself, his voice was surprisingly strong and did not quaver as he continued, “they are collectively a representation of Mithra, who sheds light that we may see, as they do so now. Yet the light that Mithra provides goes far beyond physical vision.” Not knowing what to say to this candid proclamation, I awkwardly inclined my head and began to introduce myself, but the sage cut me off abruptly after the first syllable tumbled from my mouth. “It matters not who you are. What matters is who you are to become. Come, syndexioi. We begin your initiation,” he said as he turned, beckoning with a bony hand for me to follow. I hurried after him, a sudden anxiety building in the pit of my stomach.
I knew little of the trials I was to face. What I had gleaned from Avilius provided no reassurance either, as he had relayed rumours that syndexioi were made to fight a raging bull with skin like stone. I was not weak by any means, but to take on a bull with my bare hands was beyond me. My thoughts were interrupted by the priest, whose voice rang out clear in the cool underground chambers of the mithraeum. “We begin by coming to know who Mithra is,” he explained as we proceeded down into a long room flanked by torches. “And here, we have the most important, most celebrated depiction of Mithra – the Tauroctony.” We reached the end of the room and the priest gestured at an image carved into the stone wall. The engraving showed a powerfully built figure, who I assumed was supposed to be Mithra, holding a sword to the throat of a mighty bull while a dog and a snake drank its blood. Silently, I cursed Avilius for his stupidity and vowed never to believe any rumour from him ever again. “Mithra brought this bull to a cavern, having hunted and overwhelmed it with his vast strength, and slayed it,” the priest explained, then gestured at a sun carved into the upper left hand corner of the image, “he then meets Sol, who recognizes his strength and shakes his hand, and they feast together on the parts of the bull Mithra slaughtered.” The priest pointed at several other images chiselled into the stone walls around us and I caught sight of other figures. Some feasted at a banquet, others were of smaller figures, and yet others bore the heads of animals such as lions. “There are many more stories for you to discover, syndexioi. But now is not the time for them,” the priest continued and turned to look me straight in the eyes. “Now, syndexioi, now we test your courage.”
We walked out of the chamber and proceeded to another part of the mithraeum. Along the way, the priest told me about the various degrees of initiation that existed in the cult. There were a total of seven, I learned, with the pater being the highest and most revered. Other grades included the corax, nymphus, miles, perses, heliodrommus, and leo, as I am currently. I also found out, to my dismay, that there no women in the cult of Mithras. I once again mutely cursed Avilius – this time for being accurate. As we reached the doorway we were headed to, the priest drew a blindfold from his garments and proceeded to wrap it round my eyes. He led me to the centre of the room and instructed me to kneel down. My hearing sharpened as I swam in blackness, nervous about what may happen. My insides clenched as I heard the unmistakeable sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath and I began trembling as I felt cold metal pressed against the side of my face. My fears were quieted however, when a voice, not belonging to the old priest, began to speak. “Take courage, syndexioi, and fear not the blade. Mithra protects all.” The sword was removed and I felt a weight encircling my head. The voice continued, “cast aside the crown placed on your head. We care not for our own ambition here, only what Mithra has set for us.” As he said this, my blindfold was removed and I looked up at another priest – younger than the previous sage but dressed differently, more elaborately. I later came to learn that this was the pater. Gulping, I stood up shakily and clumsily removed the circlet from my head, handing it over to the pater. “Mithras is our true crown,” I stammered as the pater grasped my hand. “Yes, syndexioi,” the pater whispered, “Mithras is our true crown.”
Beck, R. (2006). The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=422513
Bremmer & Jan N. (n.d.). Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Vol 1). De Gruyter. Retrieved from https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/books/9783110299557/9783110299557.110/9783110299557.110.pdf
Pierre A. Thomé. “Mithraism,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 10, 2015. http://www.ancient.eu /Mithraic_Mysteries/
Pearse, R. (n.d.) The Roman Cult of Mithras. Retrieved April 3, 2017. http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/display.php?page=main
Mithra & Mithraism: The Seven Grades of Initiation From The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. (n.d.).Retrieved April 3, 2017.