Mithra is one of the ancient Indo-European gods, and although he is not a deity that can be reconstructed for a common proto-Indo-European period, his cult spanned various times from the east of the Indo-European world to its west and beyond.
It is likely that the roots of Mithra’s cult go back to the times of Andronovo culture, when he was probably known as *Mitrás. He was a god of social contract, agreements, pacts, alliances, and thus friendship. He was the protector of the social order, which was an earthly reflection of the Cosmic Order.
The proto-Indo-Iranian expansion extended Mithra’s cult to the new Indo-Iranian homelands. The oldest written mention of Mithra comes from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC from the kingdom of Mitanni, which was ruled by a warrior aristocracy closely related to the Vedic Aryans. Here, Mitra appears along with other Vedic deities – Varuna, Indra, and Nasatyas.
Since ancient times, Mitra has been associated with the sunrise and is still invoked in the Hindu India at the time of the rising of the Sun. This connection of Mithra with the sunrise can also be found in the Iranian Avesta.
During the Vedic period, Mitra was very closely associated with the god Varuna. Their relationship within the so-called First Function of the Indo-European Cosmo-Social System was studied by Georges Dumézil.
While in the late Vedic period, Mitra was very strongly associated with the Sun and solar attributes (a development analogous to Iranian, see below), in the post-Vedic period his social function prevailed and his name can now be found in Indian languages as “friend”. As mentioned above, his cosmic function has not completely disappeared, and although Vedic deities are in Hindu India rather in the background, Mitra is still worshiped in the context of the morning sun and is identified with the sun.
Undoubtedly, among the Iranians, the cult of Mithra was very strong and it is possible that, like in Vedic India, he was closely associated with the cult of the “wise Ahura” (proto-Indo-Iranian *Asura Medha, which some researchers postulate as proto-Indo-Iranian predecessor of the Vedic Varuna (among whose epithets we find “medhira”) and of the Avestan Ahura Mazda). However, Zoroastrian reform of the Iranian religion did not change much regarding Mithra’s position. In the Achaemenid religion, we find Mithra as the most important god, together with Ahura Mazda and the goddess Anahita. Dedication finds from Persepolis testify to the presence of Mithra’s cult among the officers of the Achaemenid army.
It is typical for the Iranian cult of Mithra that the connection with the Sun and solar attributes became increasingly important, leading to the fact that in the Iranian languages the name of Mithra became the word for the Sun. Yet, within the Zoroastrian religion, there was no complete identification of the Mithra and the Sun (yazata Chorshed).
Mithra’s cult in the ancient world
According to some researchers, it is highly probable that, in addition to the “official” Zoroastrian form of Mithra’s cult, there were various heterodox forms that kept its original pre-zoroastrian forms.
These (from the point of view of Zoroastrian orthodoxy) heterodox cults were most likely active mainly in the periphery of the Zoroastrian world, in the West in Asia Minor and in the East in the Baktria region and other Central Asian regions where Persian, Indian, Turanian, Chinese and Siberian influences met.
In the Central Asian region, the cult of Mithra was associated with Manichaeism and Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana’s reflection of Mithra is Bodhisattva Maitreya, and in this sense the cult of Mithra has spread to Japan (Miroku).
In the region of Asia Minor we find during the post-Alexander era Mithra’s cult in the kingdom of Commagene, Pontus and other regions. One of these regions was Cilicia. A typical feature of local cults was the Heleno-Persian synthesis. According to Roman sources, the Romans became acquainted with the cult of Mithra thanks to the Cilician pirates, which Rome defeated in the 60s of the 1st century BC.
During the next hundred years, the uniquely occidental form of the Roman cult of Mithras was formed. Mysteria Mithrae became an integral part of the Roman spiritual world and provided initiation to all men who were worthy, regardless of their socio-economic status. The centers of Roman Mithra’s cult were not temples, but mithraea, underground spaces resembling the Primordial Cave, mentioned by Porfyrios in the Cave of the Nymphs.
The cult of Mithras was strongest in the Roman legions. The rise of Christianity had a similar effect on Roman Mithraism as on other cults and during the 4th century AD traces of Mithraism are lost in the Roman Empire.
Mithra over the ages
In the East, the cult of Mithra suffered a great blow in the form of the fall of the Sassanian Empire. Yet Mithra’s cult had an impact on the heterodox spiritual currents of the Islamic period (alavites, yazidis etc.) and generally on the so-called Yazdan religions, where it can be found in more or less hidden forms. In the mountainous regions of Kurdistan, the cult of Mithra even survived in the open form of Mihryasna.
To this day, Mithra is also, of course, venerated as a Yazata in orthodox Zoroastrism in Iran and among Parsies in India. As Maitreya (Miroku) he is present in Mahayana Buddhism. In India, he is worshiped not only by the brāhmaṇas who are engaged in maintaining the Vedic cult, but also everywhere in the morning prayers or celebrations like Mitrotsavam.
The European Center for Mithraistic Studies was founded to support the study of God Mithra in his various manifestations and to contribute to extending the knowledge of God Mithra and his cults. As in ancient times, Mithras, the god of covenant, truth and order, but also of friendship and sunlight, is the inspiration for honest and true living.