On Mithraism

Mithraism was a mystery cult religion, active in the first century AD until around the fourth century AD, which was prominent among the ranks of the Roman legions. It is said to have been an early competitor to Christianity. It had its roots in Persia where a similarly-named god existed, however it also had other features that were seemingly unique to it as well as some features of a Traditional character.

At the centre of every Mithraeum — a shrine to Mithras — we see the recognisable image of the slaying of the sacred bull, the tauroctony. This is the final part of the initiation process, hence its central position. Mithras is clothed in an Anatolian costume and wears a Phrygian cap.[1] He kneels on the exhausted bull, holding it down by the nostrils with his left hand whilst stabbing it with a knife in his right.[2] As he is doing this he looks over his shoulder to the top left of the scene towards a face who we identify as Sol, whilst Luna appears on the opposite side. As he kills the bull, animals — a dog and a snake — rush to drink its lifeblood. Often the bull is white. The rather unusual way in which Mithras is sitting on the bull is deliberate and corresponds to an essential aspect of tauroctony.[3] We also see a scorpion biting the genitals of the bull. We see two figures to either side holding torches, dressed like Mithras; Cautes with his torch pointing up, and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.

Expanding on the description of the scene above, we can draw the meaning from the symbols, using Julius Evola as a guide to help us in this regard. The bull is symbolic of life in all its untamed power, which he and any initiate would have to struggle with and ultimately subjugate to his will. In “riding the bull” he is letting it wear itself out — similar in some sense to Evola’s concept of “riding the tiger.” This is a test of endurance which we can draw parallels to in Odin hanging himself from a branch of the tree Yggdrasil, or indeed Christ’s Crucifixion to obtain salvation for Mankind. It is telling that John Boorman, in his 1981 film Excalibur, uses this symbolism to convey Percival finding the Grail, as he too hangs from a tree. Moreover, the symbolism of overcoming the dragon is likewise similar to that of the slaying of the bull, which in many cases leads to a regeneration of the human state or gaining an understanding of the “language of the birds,” e.g. an angelic or divine language.[4]

Mithras stares at Sol Invictus — the Sun — in another test of endurance and commands him, rather than praying and submitting to him. Evola attests that this is the Solar path as opposed to the Lunar path, where “what matters is to turn oneself into an obedient instrument of higher entities.”[5] What results is a pact of mutual friendship between the gods and a new being “stronger than nature, stronger than the gods — a being who is beyond life and death.”[6] It is true that through the initiation process one hopes to be reborn into a new form, so to speak, in which you are in a fuller communion with yourself and the world.[7]

The animals leaping to drink the lifeblood of the bull represent impurity trying to get to the wheat, or the Bread of Life, which is what the lifeblood consists of.[8] All the animals here represent also a poisoning of the source of life; the scorpion biting the genitals, for example.[9]

Concerning Cautes and Cautopates, of course we have the more literal translations of the two figures as symbolising sunrise and sunset, spring and autumn equinoxes, ascending and descending nodes of the Sun’s apparent path on the celestial sphere, and life and death. The symbol of the torch may represent a passage not just of time but also of Tradition, and it may also be a variation of day and night analogous with ascending and descending. We see this clearly in the Tarot card, the Magician, who holds a two-ended candle to the sky and points to the ground. René Guénon writes in Symbols of the Sacred Science (p. 319):

…these meanings of life and death are actually linked to the double aspect of the thunderbolt, represented by the two contrary directions of the varja … what is really involved, in the most general sense, is the double power of production and destruction, of which life and death are the expression in our world…

Furthermore, we have depictions of Mithras holding a torch aloft as he is born from the rock, naked except for his cap and holding his dagger in his right hand. In one instance he has a globe in one hand; sometimes a thunderbolt is seen. Again, then, we see allusions to the symbolism we mentioned above and in our previous essay.[10] His birth is miraculous and witnessed only by shepherds hidden on mountaintops.[11] Perhaps his emergence from the rock is symbolic of a freeing of oneself from the telluric currents of the material world and in crossing the river he is purifying himself through struggle.[12] The esoteric concepts connected with these symbols and others such as being washed, throwing away clothes, et al, are symbolic of purity.[13] Indeed, when Percival falls into the water — toward the end of his quest for the Grail — he is stripped of all armour and thus naked like Mithras who also naked, symbolising purity.[14]

A final point on the symbolism of the cave; the journeying into the subterranean world in order to extinguish the profane world which the cave gives access to is present in the Mithraic mysteries, in that, according to Evola, the expression “theos ek petras” — the “God from the Rock” — is both heavenly light and dark earth.[15] In comparison to what Guénon states on this matter, we could equate this to the concept of the “World Egg,” whose most common symbolism — divided in two — represents heaven and earth, or within the cave, the vault and the ground.[16] It is believed that Evola’s understanding is here somewhat hazy. Therefore, it is ventured that further examination of Guénon’s Symbols of the Sacred Science and King of the World will elucidate this concept further.[17]

While this has not been an exhaustive exploration, it is hoped that it will serve to highlight some of the facets of the Mysteries initiatic nature, and perhaps will inspire some to pick up a copy of the Mithraic Mysteries by Evola for further study. For more information on other parts of Mithraism, the Wikipedia entry would suffice. Although a note of caution to those who would look there: it is clear that those who have written about Mithraism there, or whom they have used as sources, see some symbolism in Mithraism, but only as an exoteric religion without an initiatic society or its deeper esoteric meanings.

[1] The Phrygian cap signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty.
[2] The “incorruptible right hand” — see the many occurrences in the Bible, the notion of white magic associated with the right-hand path, etc..
[3] Perhaps representing the struggle and the difficulty in the process, or perhaps the unnatural attempt at damaging life to reach a higher form.
[4] René Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science (Hillsdale, 2004), chapter 7.
[5] Julius Evola, The Path of Enlightenment in the Mithraic Mysteries (Sequim, 2011), p. 16.
[6] Ibid.
[7] This is also true for Christians who seek to awaken in man his true destiny, that he may once again exercise those charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, with which the Church was once so generously endowed.
[8] Evola, Mithraic Mysteries, p. 18.
[9] Ibid.
[10]The Thunderbolt and the Grail, Pt. I
[11] Evola, Mithraic Mysteries, p. 11; in the symbolism of the mountain we have the concept that the king/emperor is sleeping inside the mountain waiting to return combined with the notion that the mountain is the source of wisdom, e.g. the Sermon on the Mount or the shepherds inside the mountain in the Mysteries.
[12] Evola, Mithraic Mysteries, p. 12.
[13] Evola, Mithraic Mysteries, p. 13.
[14] Percival is also the chaste virgin who heals the rift caused by Lancelot and Guinevere by finding the secret of the Grail: that the land, the people and the king are one.
[15] Evola, Mithraic Mysteries, p. 12.
[16] Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science, p. 215.
[17] Forthcoming essays will touch on this in relation to the Grail et al.

Auld Wat

Delving into the depths of Medieval Europe; the last great Traditional Aryan civilisation.

2 thoughts on “On Mithraism

  1. Well done, friend. I enjoyed reading this and have learned more than I previously knew on the subject. I will take your advice and get Evola’s Mithraic Mysteries. I find your tie-in to the Grail Legend a very interesting nuance which I hope plays more into your future articles.

    1. Thank you. It’s a curious book that has some additional chapters on related subjects e.g. the Emperor Julian. The connection to the Grail shall become more readily apparent I hope, although there will be a divergence in that the Mysteries will be sidelined so to speak as they were in history, at least that is my hypothesis.

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