Sacred Texts  Bible  Bible Critical Views  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 8. The Creed.

We have thus far briefly examined what may for the most part be termed the skeleton or dry bones of the Mithraic religion, so far as we can trace them, at the period when it seemed to be successfully competing with Christianity. What of the inner life, the spiritual message and attraction which there must have been to give the cult its hold over the Roman Empire? Here it is that our ignorance becomes most sharply felt. So far as Christian zeal could suppress all good report of Mithraism, this was done, when Christianity—I will not say overthrew, but—absorbed the Mithraic movement. There were in antiquity, we know from Porphyry, 3 several elaborate treatises setting forth the religion of Mithra; and every one of these has been destroyed by the care of the Church. 4 They doubtless included much narrative as well as much didactic matter, the knowledge of which would colour the whole religious consciousness of Mithra's worshippers. We shall see later that clues still exist, one of which has been overlooked in studies of Mithraism, to some of the myths of the cult; and we may safely decide in general that just as the Brahmanas prove the currency of myths concerning the Vedic Gods which are not mentioned in the Vedic hymns, so there must have existed a Mithraic mythology which is not contained in the Zendavesta, that being, though not a simple collection of hymns, a compilation for purposes of worship. The reconstruction of that mythology, however, is now hopeless. Too little attention, perhaps, has been paid to Creuzer's theory that the name Perseus = Perses, "the Persian," and that the Perseus myth is really an early adaptation of the Mithra myth. 5 The story of Perseus certainly has an amount of action and colour unusual in Greek myth, and no less suggestive of Oriental origin than is the

p. 311

legend of Herakles. But unless new evidence be forthcoming, such a hypothesis can at most stand for a possibility.

And so with the didactic side of Mithraism: we must limit our inferences to our positive data. These include the evidence of the Vendidâd ritual that there was associated with the cult a teaching of happy immortality for the righteous, very much on the lines of that of Christianity. An extract 1 will make the point clear 2:—



"(Zarathustra asked) O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! Where are the rewards given? Where does the rewarding take place? Where is the recompense fulfilled? Whereto do men come to take the reward that, during their life in the material world, they have won for their souls?



"Ahura Mazda answered: When the man is dead, when his time is past, then the wicked, evil-doing Dævas cut off his eyesight. On the third night, when the dawn appears and brightens, when Mithra, the God with beautiful weapons, reaches the all-happy mountains, and the sun is rising:



"Then the fiend, named Vizaresha, O Spitama Zarathustra, carries off in bonds the souls of the wicked Dæva-worshippers who live in sin. The soul enters the way made by Time, and open both to the wicked and to the righteous. At the end of the Kinvad bridge, the holy bridge made by the Mazda, they ask for their spirits and souls the reward for the worldly goods which they gave away here below.



"Then comes the beautiful, well-shapen, strong and graceful maid, with the dogs at her sides, one who can discern, who has many children, happy and of high understanding. She makes the soul of the righteous one go up above the Haraberezaiti; above the Kinvad bridge; she places it in the presence of the heavenly Gods themselves.



"Uprises Vohu-manô from his golden seat; Vohu-manô exclaims: How hast thou come to us, thou Holy One, from that decaying world into this undecaying one?



"Gladly pass the souls of the righteous to the golden seat of Ahura-Mazda, to the golden seat of the Amesha-Spentas, to the Garôumânem [house of songs], the abode of Ahura-Mazda, the abode of the Amesha-Spentas, the abode of all the other holy beings.



"As to the godly man that has been cleansed, the wicked p. 312 evil-doing Dævas tremble at the perfume of his soul after death, as doth a sheep on which a wolf is pouncing.



"The souls of the righteous are gathered together there: Nairyô-Sangha is with them: a messenger of Ahura-Mazda is Nairyô-Sangha."

[paragraph continues] It is noteworthy, further, that in some codices of the Avesta is found this formula: "He has gained nothing who has not gained the soul: He shall gain nothing who shall not gain the soul." The meaning is "gain a place in Paradise," 1 and the passage looks very like an original form of a well-known Christian text.

For the rest, the Zendavesta, like most other Sacred Books, insists on the normal morals strenuously enough. It has strange special teachings as to the sacro-sanctity of the dog; and its veto alike on the burning and the burying of bodies 2 is peculiar to Mazdeism; but these beliefs do not seem to have affected later Mithraism; whereas probably its special stress on truthfulness—not paralleled in the Ten Commandments—was maintained. We cannot, indeed, tell how the Mithraic priests dealt with the special problems of the life of the Roman Empire; but we are entitled none the less to protest against the loose revival of unfounded and exploded charges against the cult. To this day we find Christian scholars either saying or hinting that Mithraism was signalised in the Roman period by human sacrifices. For this there is no justification. 3 The ecclesiastical historian Sokrates 4 does indeed allege that about the year 360 a temple of Mithra at Alexandria, long empty and neglected, was granted by Constantius to the Christians; that they found in it an adytum of vast depth, containing the skulls of many persons, old and young, who had been sacrificed to Mithra; and that the Christians paraded them through the city, whereupon there was a riot, in which Bishop George and many others were slain. But this narrative is unsupported even in ecclesiastical history, and is full of incredibilities. The "Pagans" in general are represented as taking arms to avenge an attack on the Mithraic sect, though the Mithraic temple is expressly declared to have been long deserted; and the emperor Julian, a Mithraist, is represented as writing a letter denouncing the Alexandrians for their conduct. Yet he merely speaks of the killing of George, where Sokrates alleges a wholesale massacre. The whole story savours of mere odium theologicum, and will not consist with any other accounts of Mithraic worship. We do know that during

p. 313

the whole of the first three or four centuries it was charged against the Christians, by Jews or Pagans, that they were wont to sacrifice a child at their mysteries. 1 That charge was doubtless false, but it was constantly made.

On the other hand, the only kind of record founded-on for the charge against Mithraism is one which rebuts it. Sainte-Croix, accepting the plainly worthless testimony of the ecclesiastical historian, referred 2 to a passage in the life of Commodus by Lampridius, in the Augustan history, in support of his insinuation that Mithraism involved human sacrifice. But this passage 3 explicitly says that Commodus "polluted the rites of Mithras by a real homicide, where it is usual for something to be said or done for the purpose of causing terror" (quum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat). The same scholar makes another reference which equally serves to confute him; 4 yet an English writer later speaks of "the dark and fearful mysteries" of Mithra, repeating the old insinuation. 5 Selden 6 quotes from Photius 7 a statement that men, women, and boys were sacrificed to Mithra; but that assertion also is plainly valueless, coming as it does from a Christian writer of the tenth century, and being absolutely without ancient corroboration. What seems to have happened was a symbolical sacrifice, perhaps followed up by a symbolical eating of the God's image—proceedings which, there is good reason to suppose, occurred in the mysteries of the early Christians. 8

But there is far more testimony, such as it is, for the charge of infamous procedure against the Christians than against the Mithraists. The Mithraic mysteries, save for the fact that they involved real austerities and a scenic representation of death, 9 were no more dark and fearful than the Christian mysteries are known to have been, not to speak of what these are said to have been. There lies against them no such imputation of licence as was constantly brought against

p. 314

the midnight meetings of the Christians, or as is specifically brought by Paul against his own converts at Corinth. Their purpose was unquestionably moral as well as consolatory. 1 In the words of Suidas, the worshipper went through his trials in order that he should become holy and passionless. In the course of the initiation, as we know from the unwilling admiration of Tertullian, 2 the devotee, called the soldier of Mithra, was offered a crown, which it was his part to refuse, saying that Mithra was his crown. And everything points to the enunciation of a theory of expiation of and purification from sin, in which Mithra figured as Mediator and Saviour, actually undergoing a symbolic sacrifice, and certainly securing to his worshippers eternal life. 3 As to the doctrine of immortality being pre-Christian, it is now quite unnecessary to speak; and the whole Mithraic symbolism implies such a teaching. On most of the bull monuments, it will be remembered, there stand beside Mithra two figures, one holding a raised and one a lowered torch. These signified primarily sunrise and sunset, or rising spring sun and sinking autumn sun; but, as Lessing 4 long ago showed, they were also the ancient symbols for life and death, and would further signify the fall and return of the soul. 5

Nor was this the only point at which Mithraism is known to have competed with Christianity in what pass for its highest attractions. The doctrine of the Logos, the Incarnate Word or Reason, which Christianity absorbed through the Platonising Jews of Alexandria, was present in Mithraism, and of prior derivation. That Mithra was connected with "the Word" appears from the Avesta. 6 In the Vendîdâd, further, 7 Zarathustra is made to praise successively Mithra "of the most glorious weapons," Sraosha, "the Holy One," and "the Holy Word, the most glorious," thus joining and in part identifying Mithra with the Word as well as joining him with the Holy Spirit. And Emanuel Deutsch 8 was of opinion that the Metatron 9 of the Talmud (whom he equates with the Ideas of Plato,

p. 315

the Logos of Philo, the "World of Aziluth" of the Kabbalists, the Sophia or Power of the Gnostics and the Nous of Plotinus) 1 was "most probably nothing but Mithra." 2 As the Metatron is on the Jewish side identified with the "Angel" promised as leader and commander to the Hebrews in Palestine, 3 and that angel is quasi-historically represented by Joshua =Jesus, the chain of allusion from Mithra to the Christ is thus curiously complete. In respect of the concept of a Trinity, as we have already seen, the parallel continues. By the admission of a Catholic theologian, the Gods Ahura-Mazda, Sraosha, and Mithra constitute an ostensible trinity closely analogous to that of the later Christists; 4 and yet again Mithra, himself approaching to supreme status, rides to battle with Sraosha at his right and Rashnu at his left hand; 5 or else with Rashnu on his right, and Kista, the holy one (female) white-clothed, on his left. 6

There seems no good reason for supposing that the doctrines of the Logos and the Trinity reached the Persians through the Greeks: 7 on the contrary, they probably acquired them from Babylonian sources, on which the Greeks also drew; and it was not improbably their version of the Logos idea that gave the lead to the Philonic and Christian form, in which the Word is explicitly "the light of the world."


310:3 De Abstinentia, ii, 56; iv, 16.

310:4 It is remarkable that even the treatise of Firmicus is mutilated at a passage (v) where he seems to be accusing Christians of following Mithraic usages, and at the beginning. where he may have made a similar proposition.

310:5 See Guigniaut's French ed. of Creuzer's Symbolik, i, 368, ii, 158. Cp. Cox, Myth. of Aryan Nations, p. 303, as to the identity of the Perseus and Herakles myths.

311:1 Vendidâd, Fargard xix. I have put synonyms in the place of one or two reiterated terms, to give the passage some of the literary benefit that is constantly lent in this way by the translators of the Bible.

311:2 For a recent study on the Mazdean conception of a future state on somewhat pro-Christian lines see the research of M. Nathan, La vie future d’après le Mazdéisme, à la lumière des croyances parallèles dans les autres religions. Annales du Musée Guimet. Paris, 1901.

312:1 Darmesteter's Zendavesta, i, 370, 2nd ed. (Fragments).

312:2 Darmesteter, Introd. p. lxxvii.

312:3 Cp. Cumont, i, 69.

312:4 Eccles. Hist. B. iii, c. 2. Cp. B. v, c. 16.

313:1 Cp. Origen, Against Celsus, vi, 27; Minucius Felix, Octavius, c. 9; Tertullian, Apol. c. 7.

313:2 Recherches, ii, 135. This false suggestion is implicitly copied by Milman, Hist. of Chr. B. I, e. 1, note.

313:3 Cap. 9. Sainte-Croix offers an extraordinary mistranslation of the passage.

313:4 To Porphyry, De Abstin. ii, 56; a passage which says only that down till the time of Hadrian it was the custom to sacrifice a virgin to Athênê at Laodicea. Sainte-Croix seems to have blundered over the context, in which the detail as to the sacrifice at Laodicea is referred to a historian Pallas, who had written so well on the mysteries of Mithra. This may be the basis also of the assertion by Creuzer (Symbolik, i, 363: 3te Ausg. p. 258) that Hadrian's edict was directed against Mithraism. Preller (Römische Mythologie, ed. Kohler, p. 758, note 3) surprisingly echoes Sainte-Croix.

313:5 Wright, The Celt, the Roman, and the Saxon, 4th ed. p. 328. The insinuation is found also in the encyclopaedias.

313:6 De Diis Syris, Syntag. i, c. 6.

313:7 In Athanasii vita, cod. 258.

313:8 Above, pp. 143-4, 206-9. Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 208-12, 355-61 Grant Allen, Evolution of the Idea of God, p. 345. And see below, p. 320.

313:9 Even this may have been an early Christian usage. Note the force of Gal. iii, 1; vi, 17.

314:1 See Origen, Against Celsus, iii, 59; Julian, Cæsares, end; Homerid. Hymn to Dêmêtêr, end; K. O. Müller, Introd. to Mythology, ch. xii, § 23. Cp. Preller, Griechische Mythologie. i, 497; and, as to the other Pagan mysteries, the admissions of Mosheim, notes on Cudworth, Harrison's ed. iii. 296-7.

314:2 De Corona, c. 15. This is corroborated by a scene on one of the monuments (reproduced in Roscher's Lexikon) in which the initiate greets Mithra, and seems to receive from him his solar nimbus. See it in Cumont, ii, 336.

314:3 See Garucci, Les Mystères du Syncrétisme Phrygien, passim. Cp. Windischmann (p. 53) as to the older cultus; and Roscher, s.v. Mithra, 3055 (20-33), as to the God's being a Saviour-Sacrifice.

314:4 Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet. See p. 51 in 1869 ed. of Werke, Bd. v, and figures.

314:5 So Creuzer, Das Mithrēum von Neuenheim, pp. 41-2.

314:6 Mihir Yasht, xxxii, 137 (quoted above, p. 289). Cp. xxvii. 107.

314:7 Fargard xix, 14, 15 (48, 54). Cp. Srosh Yasht, exordium, and i, 3; Srosh Vaj; and Frag. of Nasks, ix. 2; xxxiv, 70.

314:8 Literary Remains, p. 50.

314:9 As to whom see Hershon, Genesis with a Talmudical Commentary, pp. 23-4.

315:1 He is further the "Angel of Great Counsel" (Isaiah, ix, 5, Sept.) and heavenly judge, here again equating with Mithra. Cp. Oxlee, Christ. Doct. on the Principles of Judaism, ii, 329. In one of the Jewish forms of excommunication the formula "Mittraton cujus nomen est ut nomen magistri sui" occurs twice. See the translation in Selden, De jure nat. et gent. 1, iv, c. 7, ed. 1679, p. 524.

315:2 Cp. Darmesteter, Introd. to Zendavesta, 2nd ed. c. 5, as to Jewish and Persian interactions. M. Darmesteter leant unwarrantably to the view that the Persians were the borrowers, but finally pronounces (p. lxviii) Jew and Persian alike to have borrowed from Platonism. See above, Part II, ch. ii, § 2, for a criticism of this view.

315:3 Cahen's Bible, note on Exod. xxiii, 21; Hershon, as cited.

315:4 E. L. Fischer, Heidenthum und Offenbarung, 1878, pp. 121, 130, points to the presence of both Logos and Trinity in the Mithraic system. As to the trinitarian idea, cp. Cumont, i, 298, 331. 6

315:5 Mihir Yasht, xxv, 100.

315:6 Id. xxxi, 126.

315:7 Above, p. 218 sq.

Next: § 9. Mithraism and Christianity