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in ancient Eastern religions, one of the chief Indo-Iranian gods, embodying the aspect of the divine essence that is benevolent toward humanity. Mithras is the god of daylight, the giver of life, and so forth. In his specific function, he is the guarantor of established or contracted relationships in the world and society, the god of treaties (from Indo-Iranian mithra, “agreement”). He was usually shown together with the sun (with which Mithras became identified at a later period among some Iranian peoples). Mithras was revered in the state of Mitanni and in India in very ancient times.
The cult of Iranian Mithras was also represented in a number of other ancient Eastern religions (in areas of Southwest Asia under Iranian influence) and adopted many elements of these religions. In the last centuries before the Common Era a special religion centering on the cult of Mithras—Mithraism—arose and spread through the Hellenistic world, reaching Rome in the first century A.D. and spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the second century. It was especially popular in the frontier provinces, where Roman legions were stationed. The soldiers in the legions, the chief adherents of Mithraism, regarded Mithras as a god who brought victory. The remains of numerous sanctuaries to Mithras (Mithraeums) have been preserved near the former sites of Roman military camps.
The lower strata of society played an important role in the spread of Mithraism. They were attracted to it because it proclaimed equality among its initiates and promised a blissful life after death. Special “mystery” rituals, accessible only to male initiates, were performed in the Mithraeums; these consisted of sacrificial offerings, cult meals, and so forth. At the end of the second century the Roman emperors (especially Aurelian and Diocletian) patronized the Mithras cult. During the second through fourth centuries Mithraism was one of the chief rivals of Christianity, which still borrowed much from the Mithras cult.
REFERENCESKoshelenko, G. A. “Rannie etapy razvitiia kul’ta Mifry.” In the collection Drevnii Vostok i antichnyi mir. Moscow, 1972.
Blawatsky, W., and G. Kochelenko. Le Culte de Mithra sur la cote septentrionale de la Mer Noire. Leiden, 1966.
Cumont, F. Die Mysterien des Mithra. Leipzig-Berlin, 1923.
Gerschevitch, J. The Avestan Hymn to Mithra. Cambridge, 1959.
Widengren, G. Die Religionen Irons. Stuttgart, 1965.
Vermaseren, M. J. Mithrasdienst in Rome. Nijmegen, 1951.
Vermaseren, M. J. Corpus Inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacae, vols. 1–2. The Hague, 1956–60.
G. A. KOSHELENKO