Mithraism is a cult dedicated to the worship of the god Mithras, sometimes called Mitra.
There are two different organizations that fall under this term. There is an eastern version, which involved the gods Mitra, Ahur Mazda, and others, this may simply be Zoroastrianism or a variation of it. Then there is Roman Mithraism, which is a cult that was most active in the first centuries AD. Roman Mithraism may have been a romanized version of Persian Mitra worship, or it may have been a new creation that built upon the stories of Mitra, but was no continuous with the Persian mithraists.
Roman Mithraism was restricted to men. A person would be initiated into the cult in the Mithraeum, the temple of the cult. There were seven Grades or degrees within the system, each with its own introductory rite, and usually associated with a specific planet. The grades, in initiatory order are:
- Corax (Raven, Mercury)
- Nymphus (Bridesgroom, Venus)
- Miles (Soldier, Mars)
- Leo (Lion Jupiter)
- Perses (Persian, Moon)
- Heliodromus (Sun-Runner, Sun)
- Pater (Father, Saturn)
Father is thus the head of the local cult. Initiation into the first grade involved bringing the heirophant into a room, where, revealed by the opening door, is the Pater, dressed as Mithras, drawing his bow, and pointing it at the heirophant. An interpretor, called a Mystagogue (possibly 'Teacher of the Mystery"), would explain or lecture on the rite to the heirophant. This is thought to be a re-enactment of the Water Miracle performed by the god Mithras. Mithras shot his arrow into a rock, and drinkable water issued from it. Numerous interpretations of this in a mystic rite are possible; one popular one is that the new initiate has had the secret underground stream of knowledge released from within him. Another Rite involved a procession of the representatives of the various grades around the inside of the Mithraeum. The Sun-Runner in this case is thought to represent the course of the sun through the mystical year, from solstice to solstice, with the walls of the mithraeum itself representing the Heavens of astrology and astronomy.
Mithraism was an astronomical religion, heavily involved in esoteric interpretations of the movements of the planets and stars. It is thought that it involved neo-platonic ideas, in which the sun represents the soul, and its movement through the astronomical signs represents the journey of the soul, from the perfect realm into the physical realm. It is possible that Mithraism might have involved transmetempsychosis, in which the soul moves through different forms over an 'extended' life.
The god of roman Mithraism, Mithras, was thought to be a saviour god, whose initiates received eternal life. A major ceremony within the cult was to have a communal meal, involving wine, which was a re-enactment of a heavenly meal that Mithras had with other gods.
At the end of each Mithraeum was an iconic cult statue of Mithras, famously slaying the bull. It is unclear as to what the cult's interpretation of this heavenly act is.