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What is Mithraism?

By Yona Williams    4/30/12

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The Greeks are known for having their ancient cults and groups of worship that toed in religious beliefs. In this article, you will learn about Mithraism (which existed from around 100 CE to about 450 CE), which offered support for members through religion, mystical practices, and fraternal order.

Those who followed Mithraism, worshipped the god Mithras. In his original representation, he was a sun god that came from the Persian myths. The Roman Empire embraced the deity and he became a popular figure. The Mithraic religion continued to flourish from the 2nd century CE – even giving Christianity a go. The two religions shared many similarities, including sources and practices. Mithras was seen as a savior or messiah figure, whose holy day was celebrated on a Sunday. One of his main festivals was on December 25. However, the religion started to die out in the 5th century CE.

The cult associated with Mithraism followed a handful of significant practices that made them more like a modern secret society, such as the Freemasons. Only men could join the group with the majority of members coming from the ranks of the military and freedmen. Minor officials were also part of the society. Potential members underwent initiation rites. The cult did not place emphasis on a hierarchy witin the group – all of the initiates started off at the same rank and worked their way up where a legionnaire could guide his own centurion.
The initiation process was broken down into seven different categories, which corresponded with seven planets – Raven, Nymphus, Solider, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus and Father. The Mithraics met in a 'cave', which is similar to the Masonic lodges of today. It was sometimes referred to as a Mithraeum. The space was an underground chapel where the members met for a ritual meal comprised of bread and water. The Mithraeum was outfitted with low benches that ran on either side of an aisle. The men would recline on the benches while they ate their meal. The head of the aisle was decorated with a carved relief or mural that showed the iconic image of the group – the slaying of the bull.

Symbolic code was important to the Mithraics. The bull was always shown in the same pose and Mithras was depicted wearing a Phygrian cap – one of his characteristics. Animals related to the zodiac constellations were also represented throughout the Mithraeum.

The Mithriacs left behind no texts that gave an explanation as to what the symbols of their group exactly meant. One theory explains that they could have been related to a belief in the journey of the soul traveling through the cosmos. They may have believed that the soul descended to earth at birth and ascended to heaven in death.

The mystery religion of Mithraism and their ancient following did not survive through the years. No direct line of descent to the secret societies has been found in modern times. Some of the symbolism associated with the religion has been used by other groups. This was not an uncommon end of mystery religions from ancient times.

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