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Mithraism › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Pierre A. Thomé
published on 10 June 2015
Statue of tauroctony (Mithras slaying the bull) (Carole Raddato)
The Mithraic Mysteries, also known as Mithraism, were a mystery cult in the Roman world where followers worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithras (Akkadian for "contract") as the god of friendship, contract and order. The cult first appeared in the late 1st century CE and, at an extraordinary pace, spread from the Italian Peninsula and border regions across the whole of the Roman empire.
The cult, like many others, was a secret one. Votaries (ie followers of the cult) worshipped Mithras in temples often built into caves and hidden away from the public. This was done so as to create the feeling of being part of a special group, just like a close group of friends that does not share secrets with outsiders. However, the secrecy of the cult was tolerated by the authorities, especially by the Roman emperors, because it was in favour of imperial power. Over 200 Mithras temples have been found, stretching from Syria to Britain, but finds are concentrated mostly in Italy, on the Rhine, and the Danube. After the crisis of the 3rd century CE and the establishment of Christianity, the Mithras Mysteries diminished in importance as temples were walled up or destroyed by Christians. However, some temples remained in use until the early 5th century CE.


The most important element of the myth behind the Mithraic Mysteries was Mithras' killing of a bull; this scene is also known as "tauroctony". It was believed that from the death of the bull - an animal often seen as a symbol of strength and fertility - sprung new life. Rebirth was an essential idea in the myth of Mithraic Mysteries. The sacrifice of the bull established a new cosmic order and was also associated with the moon, which was also associated with fertility.


What is special about the Mithraic Mysteries is its visuality. The sacrifice of the bull was depicted in a stone relief that had a central place in nearly every cult temple. In the relief, Mithras is often shown as he wrangles the bull to the ground and kills it.Being a Persian god, Mithras wears what Romans believed to be typical "Persian Chic": the Phrygian cap and pants, which Romans did not wear. Around 650 of these stone reliefs have been found, and they are all strikingly similar.
In a typical example, such as the celebrated sculpture from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Mithras looks away from the dying bull, up to the moon. In addition, Mithras has a few helpers that assist him in taking the bull's fertility: A dog and a snake drink from the bull's blood, and a scorpion stings the bull's scrotum. Also, a raven sits on the bull's tail that typically ends in ears of grain. The raven could have played the role of a mediator between Mithras and the sun god Sol invictus, with whom Mithras will share the meat of the bull.
Cult relief of the Mithraic Mysteries

Cult relief of the Mithraic Mysteries

The bull sacrifice relief was typically placed at the end of the temple, which was essentlly built like a stretched-out Roman dining room – an aisle flanked by two broad, raised benches. However, the sacrifice of the bull was rarely enacted by the worshippers themselves. Worshippers did imitate how Mithras shared the bull's meat with Sol, as fragments of dishes and bones of animals that have been found in these temples testify. High-quality pork, chicken and a large quantity of wine were consumed in high-spirited cultic feasts that connected the worshippers to each other and to Mithras.


The Mithraic Mysteries were not just about fun and games, however. There were strict rules as to how the feasts were organised, for example, regarding hygiene. What is more, there were seven degrees of initiation, ranging from "corax" (raven) to "pater" (father), of which each had its own type of clothing. The other degrees were "nymphus" (bridegroom), "miles" (soldier), "leo" (lion), "perses" (Persian), and "heliodromus" (sun-runner). Each degree of initiation had a different task to fulfill, eg a "raven" had to carry the food, while the "lions" offered sacrifices to the "father". Also, the initiates had to take part in tests of courage. The paintings in the temple of Mithras at Santa Maria Capua Vetere show us different scenes of this ritual. An initiate, blindfolded and naked, is led to the ceremony by an assistant. Later, the initiate has to kneel before the "father", who holds a torch or a sword in his face. Finally, he is stretched out on the floor, as if he had died. This probably was a ritual "suicide" in which the initiate was "killed" with a non-lethal theatre-sword, and was then reborn.
Mithraeum in Saarbrücken

Mithraeum in Saarbrücken

Other important elements of the cult were self-denial and a moral questioning of the self. For example, as the Christian author Tertullian tells us around 200 CE, a crown was placed on the initiate's head, which he had to reject, saying "Mithras is my (true) crown" (Tertullian, De corona milites 15). This too was thought of as a ritual of reincarnation, which started a new life for the initiate. The earliest documented followers of Mithras were soldiers and officers of the Roman army, but with the rising popularity of the cult, the majority of votaries were successful, freed slaves of the cities. Women, however, were excluded.
Why would a Roman soldier, or anyone, go through these troubles to become a member of a Mithras Mystery? First, as mentioned earlier, the cult supported the emperor, unlike other cults, such as the Bacchanalia. Second, the cult was based on mutual interest, friendship, and intimacy. The temples accommodated only small groups. It is understandable that members of the military were attracted by these aspects that guaranteed some sort of stability in an otherwise dangerous profession.


There are three different views on how the Mithras Mysteries became a cult in the Roman and Hellenistic world. Roman and Greek historians of the 2nd and 3rd century CE thought that the cult had originated "in Persia " or "with the Persians", and early research often followed this interpretation. However, the archeological findings do not substantiate this view: most Mithraic temples have been found in Italy and the provinces of the Danube, not Persia. What is more, the cultic reliefs depict Mithras display what Romans thought of as typical oriental clothing, but show little originality. This is comparable to modern stereotypes of all Germans wearing leather pants, or all Americans wearing cowboy hats.
Head of Mithras

Head of Mithras

A second view is that the original, oriental Persian Mithraism mixed with Roman- Hellenic culture to transform into a new form of cult. While this theory of transformation is tempting, the problem remains that in the border region between the Roman-Hellenic and the Persian world where this merging would have taken place, there are little findings of Mithraic worship.
In recent years, a radical new theory has been established which says that the Mithraic Mysteries did not originate in the east, but in Italy. The cult was founded by an unknown person, or "genius", who borrowed a few things from the Persian world to give his Mithraic Mysteries an exotic touch. The problem here is that this person is never mentioned as the founder even by its votaries, and there is no evidence to support the "invention-theory" other than the greater number of Mithraic temples in Italy, and the lack thereof in other regions. (Cf. Witschel 2013: 209)
The bottom line is that there are too little sources to form a certain explanation of the cult's origin, and there are many blank spots. Besides the many visual artifacts of the Mithraic Mysteries, little written sources remain. There are only descriptions written by Christian authors, who, perhaps, were not exactly fond of the Mithraic competition. In the eyes of church father Hieronymus, for example, Mithras temples were places that were best destroyed. No written sources by members of the Mithras Mysteries survive, but this makes sense, keeping in mind that it was a secret cult. Perhaps the focus should not be so much on finding a single root of the cult. Rather, we should take a dynamic approach. Figuratively speaking, we should take a close look at the different branches of the Mithraic Mysteries at different places, and the different periods of time, or "seasons", at which this fascinating cult existed. (Cf. Witschel 2013: 209)

Plotinus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 23 August 2015
Plotinus (Anonymous)
Plotinus (c. 204-270 CE) was a Platonic philosopher born in Lycopolis, Egypt. Although the story of his life was written down by his student Porphyry, few biographical details are included because Plotinus rejected the physical world of appearances in favor of the realm of the mind and considered trivialites such as his birth date, family, ancestry and personal endeavors unworthy of mention. At the age of 28 he began a course of study with the Platonist Ammonius Saccas that deeply impacted his life. Already a student of philosophy, Plotinus devoted himself fully to the discipline, absorbing Plato 's Dialogues and his teacher's commentary on them. Plotinus' concept of the Divine Mind and the purpose of mortal existence exerted tremendous influence on all three of the world's great monotheistic religions and, for this reason, many consider him the most significant philosopher of the ancient world. He is the founder of the school of thought known as Neo-Platonism; a significant number of famous ancient writers, theologians, politicians, generals, and philosophers are now recognized as Neo-Platonists, although they would not have referred to themselves by that label. Plotinus' philosophy was recorded in the Enneads by Porphyry; he wrote nothing himself. He died in Rome at the age of 66.


Plotinus' birthplace at the Greek colony of Lycopolis, Egypt suggests he was probably Greek but this is uncertain. All that is known of his life is what he allowed his student Porphyry to record. In his late twenties, pursuing an interest in philosophy, Plotinus went to Alexandria, which was then an intellectual centre which rivaled Athens. He was disappointed with the plebian philosophies he heard being taught as 'profound truths' and was steadily becoming more and more frustrated and disillusioned when a friend suggested he come to a talk by the Platonic philosopher Ammonius Saccas (who was also the teacher of the Christian theologian Origen). Plotinus went to the lecture and immediately declared that Saccas was the teacher he had been seeking all his life. After ten years of study under Saccas, Plotinus joined the military campagin of Emperor Gordian III to Persia in order to learn Persian and Indian philosophy. When Gordian was assassinated by his troops, and the campaign fell apart, Plotinus traveled to Antioch and then on to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life.



Neo-Platonism is a modern term which defines the resurgence of Platonic thought, mixed with elements of mysticism and Christianity, which flourished in the 3rd century CE, with the work of Plotinus, and ended with the closing of Plato's Academy by the emperor Justinian in 529 CE. It must be emphasized that the term 'Neo-Platonism' is a modern designation and neither Plotinus nor those who came after him would have labeled themselves 'Neo-Platonists' but would have simply considered themselves students and teachers of Plato's thought. Unlike modern academic categorizations, they did not consider the study of the works of Aristotle to be fundamentally different from the study of Plato's concepts. To the ancient Neo-Platonists, Aristotle was a Platonist and an important one, as he had studied directly with the master. Aristotle, then, instead of being taught as a separate philosophy, was studied in preparation for reading Plato. Plotinus held that, just because Aristotle disagreed with his master on certain points, this did not mean the student broke from his master's teachings and nothing was found in Aristotle's work which fundamentally contradicted Plato's vision, not even their disagreement over Plato's Theory of Forms.
Porphyry wrote down and edited Plotinus' teachings into six groups of nine called the Enneads (which is simply Greek for 'nine') and also tried his best to write his master's biography but without much success. Plotinus' insistence on the life of the mind meant that small details of one's daily life were beneath notice. It is known, however, that he corresponded with a number of other philosophers, among them Cassius Longinus, friend and advisor to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who was executed when she was defeated by Aurelian in 273 CE.


The Enneads develop Plato's cosmology and his insistence on an ultimate truth that lies beyond the world of our senses.Plotinus calls this truth the 'One' or the 'Good' but, as this truth has no limits, it was never created, and can never be destroyed; it is really beyond the power of words to describe, though Plotinus' label of nous, 'Divine Mind', comes closest. The purpose of studying philosophy is to awaken the soul to the presence of this Divine Mind, this nous, and enable one to properly devote one's life to its pursuit - a concept which would have an immense effect on St. Augustine of Hippo and his conception of the Christian God and the Christian's duty in life. Plotinus wrote, “The God is not external to anyone, but is present with all things," which is reflected in Augustine's view of God in his work City of God.
Plotinus' philosophy is concisely explained by scholars Baird and Kaufmann:
Developing Plato's dualistic understanding of reality, Plotinus taught that true reality lies 'beyond' the physical world. This 'reality beyond reality' has no limits and so cannot be described by words, since words invariably have limits. Plotinus, again borrowing from Plato, calls this ultra-reality the 'Good' or the 'One'. The One/Good has no limits and is so supremely right that it overflows or 'emanates' to produce 'Intellectual-Principle' or 'Divine Mind' - nous. This Intellectual-Principle, in turn, overflows and 'Divine-Soul' emanates from it. This process continues as Divine-Soul generates the material world. The lowest level of emanation, at the furthest extreme from the One/Good, is the utter formlessness and unreality of matter. The goal of philosophy is to awaken individuals to the reality beyond the material world. But philosophy alone cannot take a person to the highest reality of the One. Only mystical experience can unite an individual with the One (540).
To Plotinus, that which we call 'evil' is caused by our attachment to the things of this world that prevent our complete devotion to the Divine Mind. The objects of our desires and affections are not, in themselves, 'bad' but are only so in so far as they keep us from the purpose of our lives: realizing the Divine Mind. In this way, the so-called 'problem of evil' (which Christian apologists and others have wrestled with for centuries: if God is all good, why is there evil?) is solved in that, yes, 'evil' does come from the Divine Mind but not purposefully. Human beings cause 'evil' by choosing to attach themselves to earthly pleasures and the objects of those pleasures instead of to the Divine Mind. Human beings, then, are the cause of 'evil' although the sense-objects which entice us are provided by the Divine Mind.
In this, Plotinus' beliefs are similar to those of the Buddha who said, “From desire comes grief, from desire comes fear. He who is free from desire knows neither grief nor fear” and claimed that attachment to the sense-objects of this world was the whole cause of human suffering. Similarly, Plotinus posited that one's 'goal' in life was a mystical union with the Divine Mind (as with Buddha's Nirvana) and claimed he had attained this union himself four times in his life.


The Neo-Platonic emphasis on rejection of the physical in favor of the spiritual, of an acknowledgement of an ultimate truth, and the recognition of certain set spiritual laws all came from the work of Plato but, under Plotinus' keen mind, were synthesized and developed into a kind of philosophical/religious mysticism. It is through Poltinus' work that Platonic thought would influence the belief structures of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheistic thought did not originate with Plato, but the great thinkers who developed the structure of later monotheistic religions built upon Plato's ideas as expressed by Plotinus and further developed by his students Porpyry and Iamblicus. The religious mysticism of Plotinus still draws people in the present day and is embraced by adherents of all faiths.


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