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Mitra or Mithra is an important deity of Persian and Indic culture; he appears in the Vedas as one of the Adityas, a solar deity and the god of honesty, friendship, and contracts. In Iranian civilization, where his name was rendered as Mithra, he later came into increased prominence as a major deity of Zoroastrianism. He can be identified with a proto-Indo-Iranian deity whose name can be reconstructed as *Mitra.
The Hellenistic and Roman god Mithras, worshipped by male initiates from the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE, combined the Persian Mithra with other Persian and perhaps Anatolian deities in a syncretic cult.
Etymology and Origins
The Indo-Iranian word *mitra- could have two meanings:
- covenant, compact, oath, or treaty
A general meaning of "alliance" might adequately explain both alternatives. The second sense tends to be emphasized in Indic sources, the first sense in Iranian.
The earliest known occurrence of the name Mitra is in a treaty inscription, ca 1400 BCE, established between the Hittites and the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni in the area southeast of Lake Van. The treaty is guaranteed by five Indo-Iranian gods: Indra, Mitra, Varuna and the twin horsemen, the Ashvins or Nasatya . The Hurrians, it appears, were being led by an aristocratic warrior caste worshipping these gods.
Mitra in the Vedas
In the Vedic hymns, Mitra is always invoked together with Varuna, so that the two are combined as 'Mitravaruna': Varuna is lord of the cosmic rhythm of the celestial spheres, while Mitra brings forth the light at dawn, which was covered by Varuna. In the later Vedic ritual, a white victim is prescribed for Mitra, a dark one for Varuna.
In the Shatapatha Brahmana, the Paired One is analyzed as "the Counsel and the Power" — Mitra being the priesthood, Varuna the royal power. As Joseph Campbell remarked, "Both are said to have a thousand eyes. Both are active foreground aspects of the light or solar force at play in time. Both renew the world by their deed."
Mithra in the Iranian World
The reform of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) retained the multitudes of Iranian deities, reducing them, in a complex hierarchy, to "Immortals" and "Adored Ones" who were now conceived either under the rule of Ahura Mazda or of Ahriman, as all of the cosmos was now part of Good or part of Evil.
In the later parts of the Avesta, Mithra comes to the fore among the created beings. He gained the title of "Judge of Souls". As the protector of truth and the enemy of error, Mithra occupied an intermediate position in the Zoroastrian pantheon as the greatest of the yazatas, the beings created by Ahura Mazda to aid in the destruction of evil and the administration of the world. He became the divine representative of Ahura-Mazda on earth, and was directed to protect the righteous from the demonic forces of Ahriman. He was thus a deity of truth and loyalty, and, by transfer to the physical realm, a god of air and light. As the enemy of darkness and evil spirits, he protected souls, a psychopomp accompanying them to paradise (a Persian concept and even a Persian word). Because light is accompanied by heat, he was the god of vegetation and increase; he rewarded the good with prosperity and annihilated the bad. Mithras was called omniscient, undeceivable, infallible, eternally watchful, and never-resting.
By at least the Hellenistic era, Mithra was identified as the son of Anahita, a goddess with extensive parallels to Near Eastern mother-deities who is not mentioned in the early Avesta. The largest temple with a Mithraic connection is the Seleucid temple at Kangavar in western Iran (c. 200 BCE), which is dedicated to "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras".
As a god who gave victory, Mithra was prominent in the official cult of the first Persian empire, where the seventh month and the sixteenth day of other months were consecrated to him. Mithra, the "Great King" was especially suited as a tutelary god for a ruler: Royal names incorporating the god's name (e.g. "Mithradates") appear in royal names of Parthia, Armenia, and in Anatolia, in Pontus and Cappadocia.
His worship spread first with the empire of the Persians throughout Asia Minor, then throughout the empire of Alexander and his successors. In Mesopotamia, Mithra was easily identified with Shamash, god of the sun and justice.
The Parthian princes of Armenia were hereditary priests of Mithra, and an entire district of this land was dedicated to Anahita. Many temples were erected to Mithra in Armenia, which remained one of the last strongholds of the Zoroastrian cult of Mithra until it became the first officially Christian kingdom.
Temples to Mithra in Greater Ancient Iran
Other Mithraic temples mentioned by David Fingrut, 1993 (link): at Khuzestan; in central Iran near present-day Mahallat, (a few columns still standing at the temple of Khorheh); at excavated Nisa in Turkmenistan, later renamed Mithradatkirt (Mithraic mausoleums and shrines); at Hatra in upper Mesopotamia (Mithraic sanctuaries and mausoleums).
Mithra in the Greco/Roman world
In the Hellenistic culture, Mithra could be identified with Apollo - Helios. During the 2nd century BCE, probably at Pergamon, Hellenistic sculptors transformed the figure of Mitra/Helios into an iconic Mithras, the central god of a new syncretic religion, Mithraism. Although this new cult never caught on in the Greek homeland, it was taken to Rome around the 1st century BCE by, and was dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and embraced by emperors as an official religion.
- Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God (1964).
- Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty (1990). ISBN 0942299132.
- Malandra, William, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion (1983). ISBN 0816611157.
- David Fingrut, "The Legacy of the Roman Empire's Final Pagan State Religion": section "The Persian Origins of Mithraism"
- "Shab-e Yalda: The Eve of the Birth of Mithrâ, the Sun God"
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