The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Mithraism
Prof. Mohammad Moqadam (Moghdam)
Second International Congress of Mithraic Studies
Mazda is a divine name, but you can meet men in flesh named Hormoz. Mithra is
the name of an ancient Iranian divinity, but you can meet men named Mehr, and
nowadays boys and even girls are named Mitra.
such man by the name of Methr or Mehr or Mir appeared in Eastern Iran in the
third century BCE, and he was hailed as the expected saviour or Sosyant, and the
religion he founded spread all over the ancient world from the British Isles to
Japan, South to the confines of the Sahara desert, down to southern Arabia, and
the Indian sub-continent. It was the official religion of the two rival powers
of the ancient world, the Parthian and the Roman empires for half a millennium.
had time and again been observed that the Mithraism with whose remains we are
familiar in the Roman Empire was in many respects different from the ancient
Mithra cult, that there was some new development, perhaps some sort of a revival
or reform. This called the forth for new nomenclature, among others
neo-Mithraism, later Mithraism (Humbach), or Saco-Median Mithraism of the
Modified Seythians (Gershevitch).
explanation of this new religious phenomenon was sought in the accretion of
Mesopotamian and Syrian elements, in the activities of Hellenized Magians, or
even, as tendencies in some quarters indicate, in an almost Western, Roman
creation and, as far as the silence and confusion of extant sources permit,
almost a total denial of its connection with Iran, particularly as it bears on
its relations with Christianity.
I believe we are now in a position to offer a new explanation.
Saviour was born in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday, 24th
and 25th of December, 272 BCE, and according to those who believed in
Him from an Immaculate (Anahid) Virgin (Xosidhag)
somewhere not far from lake Hamin, Sistan, Lived for 64 years among men, and
ascended to His Father Ahura Mazda in 208 BCE
The literary evidence
in mind the fate of the religion of Mithra in the West and its utter absorption
in Christianity, and the similar fate it had, even more severely, under the
Sasanian neo-Zoroastrianism and later under Islam, we would naturally expect in
Moslem historians a total identification of Mithra with Jesus, the only Messiah
allowed in orthodox Islam.
following are some of the texts related to the birth of the Messiah. (All
references are to Persian translation of the Arabic text Hazma, History of
Prophets and Kings, p.41:
son of Ashk: The Lord Messiah appeared in his days. Shabur fought against Rum,
and at that time the king that ruled there was Antiochus, the third king after
Alexander, and it was he who built Antioch."
and John son of Zacharias, on them be peace, lived during the reign of Sabur
Shah son of Afghur Shah."
Ibn Miskuwaih, Ta jarib:
appeared during the reign of Sabur son of Ashkan."
History, vol. II, p.498:
these were the Ashkanian kings that are now called Muluk-al-Tawa if (Kings of
the Tribes, the Parthian Federation)… During this period Ashk son of Ashkan
ruled for ten years. After him Shabur son of Ashkan ruled for sixty years, and
in the forty-first year of his reign Jesus son of Mary appeared in the land of
son of Mary, on whom be peace, was born in Jerusalem fifty-one years after the
beginning of the reign of the Parthian Federation."
contrast, Ibid. p.495:
the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus Jesus son of Mary, on whom be
peace, was born, and his birth was 303 years after the uprising of
continues, p. 501:
Persians think that Mary, daughter of Amran, gave birth to Jesus, son of Mary,
sixty-five years after the domination of Alexander over the land of Babylon, but
the Christians think the birth of Jesus occurred 303 years after the reign of
Alexander, and they also think that the birth of John, son of Zacharias, was six
months before the birth of Jesus."
goes on, p. 507:
Magians agree with the Christians and Jews as to the duration of the desolation
of the Holy City and What Bukhtnasr did with the Israelites until the domination
of Alexander over the Holy City and Syria and the death of Dara, but they
disagree as to the interval between the reign of Alexander and the birth of
John; they think that the interval was fifty-one years, and the disagreement
between the reign of Alexander and the birth of John and Jesus is what I have
in the Muruj and Tanbih is still more explicit.
vol. I, p.229:4
Ashk there was Shabur son of Ashk who ruled for sixty years, and in the
forty-first year of his reign the Lord Messiah, on whom be peace, appeared in
Ilya of Palestine."
Second is thirty days and Kanun First is thirty days. Nineteenth of Kanun the
day is 9 1/2 hours and a quarter, and the night is 14 hours and a quarter
maximum. On the eve of the 25th of this month is the birth of
Messiah, on whom be peace."
incidentally, in connection with the island of Socotra he says, ibid. , p.382,
that Aristotle wrote a letter to Alexander and made recommendations to the
effect that Alexander should send a group of Greeks to that island and settle
them there, Alexander did accordingly. Then "Alexander died and Messiah
appeared and the inhabitants of the island became Nasranis."
now in contrast, ibid, p.303:
the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, on
whom be peace, who, as we have said before, is Yasu Naseri (Jesus of Nazareth)
he adds in the Tanbih, pp 114-115:
the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus the Messiah was born in Bethlehem
of Palestine…According to the Christians in the fifteenth year of the reign of
Tiberius, Ishu Nasiri was baptized in the river Jordan… According to the
Christians in the seventeenth year of the reign of Tiberius, who was king 342
years after Alexander son of Philip, Ishu Nasiri was crucified."
uses, it seems advisedly, two distinct expressions, al- sayyid al-Masih, the
Lord Messiah, and Ishu Nasiri, Jesus of Nazareth, although he used both
expressions for Jesus son of Mary because he would not dare to say otherwise,
which, by the way, reminds one of Augustine's reference to Mithra as the
"Fellow in the Cap", for apparently any reference to the name Mithras
was declared anathema by the church.
it is quite clear from the above texts that these historians made a distinction
between two Messiahs, one born 65 years after the beginning of the reign (mulk)
of Alexander (336-335 BCE) and in the fifty-first year of the founding of the
Parthian dynasty: i.e. in 272-271 BCE, and the other, Jesus of Nazareth, who was
born in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus.
The same narrative and dates are given in the Koranic commentaries on the Sura' Al' Amran, for example Ab-ul- Futuh, Qomshei's Tehran edition, vol. II, p. 372.
seems also to be a distinction running through all the sources between a Messiah
that was crucified and the Messiah that was not crucified, and the Koranic
narrative of the crucifixion was perhaps as assimilation of the two traditions
in one presentation.
may be observed that these narratives do not supplement each other, but are
derived from one source, which was universally accepted by these historians, for
there was no other tradition.
finally, from Armenia, the last stronghold of the religion of Mithra, we had the
testimony of Elise Vardapet to the effect that the Lord Mihr was born of a human
mother and he is King and the Son of God.
believe all students of Iranian religions are familiar with the story of virgins
bathing in Lack Hamun where the seed of Zoroaster is preserved for making the
chosen virgin pregnant, who is to give birth to the expected Saviour, on the
model of which the story of the virgin birth of Jesus from the seed of David was
constructed. Although no seed of David is in substance is present at the
appearance of the angle in the Annunciation scene on the 25th of
March, Koranic commentators repeat the story that the angel blew in the sleeves
of Mary's dress when she came out of the water.
story of the virgin birth originates from the materialization of Farr or
Xvarenah, which after all, in spite of the scholarly literature that has grown
about it, is the light within man, what in modern terminology we name aptitude.
Now the capacity of the individual for kingship or prophet hood is of
course of a higher order and was therefore specified as the Kingly Farr and the
Farr of Zarathushtra. Since in
popular belief this Farr had taken a material form it could only be transmitted
through materials means. Hence the transmission of the Kingly Farr in the case
of Freydun through plant, animal and milk, or the Farr of Zardosht conveyed to
the future Saviour by means of his reserved seed. And in the case of Zoroaster
himself, the heavenly Farr descended in the form of fire and mingled with the
holy fire in the atrium and penetrated into the body of His mother and joined
the baby Zarathushtra. In this connection is should be pointed out that due to
the supposed preservation of the seed as bearer of the Farr in water, three Mithraic
symbols came into use.
The pearl and its shell, a "seed" that grows into an organism in
water. The pearl is seen in Mithraic monuments, for example in the hands of
angels in Taq-e-Bostan, in the beak of birds in eastern Iran and elsewhere, and
in literature, such as the Pearl of great price in he gospels and the well-known
Syriac Hymn of the Pearl. The shell is represented in some of the scenes of the
birth of Mithra that have been erroneously interpreted as an egg, and also
appears as the vaulting of niches in Mithraic monuments and in the churches,
especially where Mother and Child are depicted. Incidentally the word for niche
in Italian means shell (Nicchia, nicchio).
The second symbol is the dolphin, obviously as a mammal raising its young in
water. This symbol is found on some Mithraic monuments in Europe and appears
abundantly in the Khirbahs or Mithraeums in Syria and Arabia.
The third symbol is the lotus, a water-flower. Mithra stands n a lotus in
Taq-e-Bostan and it seems to me that the stylized object from which Mithra
emerges, and which has been interpreted as rock, is nearer to the shape of the
lotus, besides the possible confusion in the Greek title of Mithra as Petregenes,
from petra, rock, and petri-on, the name of a plant; of petal-on, petal.
now we pass on from the virgin birth to the ascension.
p. 42, says:
son of Ashk, after John was killed by the Children of Israel, fought against
them and destroyed Jerusalem for the second time."
son of Shabur started his reign with a war of revenge against the Children of
Israel for their having killing John of Zacharias, and destroyed
leaving aside again the confusion arising from the identification of Mithra with
Jesus, and taking notice of the information is Islamic writings and the Messiah
was charged with his mission when he was 25 years old and preached for 40 years
among men, and the date of the second destruction of Jerusalem in 168 BCE, and
the date given for the second destruction of Jerusalem as 40 years after the
Ascension, we conclude that the death of Mithra took place in the year 208 BCE
and from the Turfan fragment that was taken by Henning, with his own emendation,
as a description of the death of Mani, we learn the death of Mithra Messiah
occurred on Monday, the fourth of Shahrivar, at the eleventh hour at night.
(Henning's ascription of the said fragment to Mani's death is impossible because
the day and the month do not coincide with the dates we for Mani's death in
Archaeology of Mithraism
shall deal briefly with some of these relevant archaeological problems in my
forth coming small book in Persian with the title An Essay on Mehr and Nahid,
and I shall only make a few remarks here.
When a foreign thought, religious or otherwise, or even foreign material objects
are imposed upon or adopted by a people, they are adapted by the receiving
people and one means of adaption and reception is the identification of the
foreign thing to what is already existing and familiar. This is natural and
permissible, and one may say sincere.
in the case of the religion of Mithra which was the most universal religion in
the ancient world, and which had its object the establishment of the Kingdom of
God on earth and the brotherhood of man, as symbolized in the Mithraic sign of
the Cross, explained in the Mithraic monument of Hsian-fu in China as
representing the unity of man from the four corners of the earth, even the
encouragement of such a policy of identification on the art of the followers of
Mithra is quite understandable. (Incidentally, the Hsian-fu monument carries all
the three symbols of the pearl, the lotus and the dolphin.)
A second motive of identification is the protection of native monuments from
vandalism of fanatical groups who are imposing a new religion or a new way of
life. Under this category may be listed such identifications as the Mosque of
Solomon's Mother, Takht-e-Soleyman, Ebrahim-e Zardosht, or the substitution of
Mithra with Jesus, that my be literally multiplied a hundred fold in Iran and
the modern scholarly attempts at identification of things Iranian with Greek
mythological names do not fall within either of these two categories, unless it
is committed as an act of defence for the protection of the West, and on
particular the Church, against an Iranian re-invasion.
I sympathize with Herzfeld when he said that the constant mention of gods and
goddesses of fertility is really sickening.
on to the problem of lack of Mithraeums in Iran, it must be pointed out that in
Iran they had the same fate as in Europe, where excavations have revealed a
Mithraeum under almost every old church building. In the east, for example the
Cathedral in Etchmiadzin we have encountered the same phenomenon, and recent
excavations under Jame Mosque in Esfahan by the Italians, as also in other Jame
Mosques in Iran have revealed remains of pre-Islamic monuments which must
certainly be of a religious character.
Iran the Parthian Mithraeums were first turned into Sasanian fire-temples, still
preserving the name dare-e Mehr, and second time into mosques, also preserving
the old designation as the "House of Communion" (myazda-kada>
mazget> masjed, Arabic sajada being a back-formation).
Iran is not lacking in Mithraic monuments. The Taq-e-Bostan with its cave-like
construction and the religious scenes inside the Taq is a Parthian monument,
situated in a district named in honour if Mithra, Baghestan, with its Mithraic
appendages of flowing spring and small lake, and the figure of Mithra standing
on a lotus flower. The ascription of the scenes to Khosro Parvis is impossible
and follows the policy of identifications discussed above, which may have been
encouraged even in the Sasanian period.
"fire-temple" in Bishapur is another similar case. When some years ago
I argued that we could not consider an underground building as a Zoroastrian
fire-temple I did not have Professor Ghirshman's Bichapour, vol. II on hand. The
figure of Mithra on a fragment discovered in that temple and reproduced on Plate
XVII removes any doubt as to the Mithraic origin of that temple.
the Khirbahs scattered all over Arabia and Syria are Mithraeums in which
Mithraic figures and statuettes have been discovered. Khirbah has no connection
with Arabic Kharaba, ruined. It is the Iranian Khorabe, a "sun-dome."
Abe is found in compounds as in gur-abe, a "tomb-dome," a mausoleum,
or in the name Saavee, "three domes," reminding one of Marco Polo's,
mention of the tombs of the three Magi in that town. It is the name of a
locality near Hamedan in its older form, Avaj, and the word lives on in English
Abbey and ab-bot, old English ab-bod, the head of the abbey. In the Masnavi we
have Khor-bod, head of the Khor-Khane, translated into Arabic shammas, a title
still used in oriental churches for an office of the clergy. (Dozy also
translated Arabic Khirba as "court.")
the last story in the kitab al-Aghani it is narrated, "in Sistan there was
a man called Burzen, an ascetic, whose father had been impaled in his Khiraba."
He could not have been impaled in his "ruins" but in the Khorabe,
Mithraeum. So there were Khorabes as far as Sistan.
the poems of Hafez the Khorabat-e Moqan, Mithraeums of the Magians, synonymous
with Deyr-e Moghan, the convent of the Magians, is common theme. The word deyr, from Avestan dauru-upadarana-, wooden house,
is also found the compound Se-deyr, the three Convents, the old name of Dura
Europas, the word dura itself representing deyr.
Armenia, as Starbo mentions, a whole district was named in honour of Anahita,
the Mother of God, and the word Mehean from Migryan, i.e. Mithraism, is the
common noun in Armenian for temple. Now the ruins of the Mehean in Garni show
that the temple was a magnificent monumental edifice. It was natural that the
royal house of the Armenia who were followers of Mithra should build such royal
temples for worship. It follows that the Parthian emperors must have built such
monumental cathedrals in the homeland of Mithra. The temple at Kangavar,
dedicated also the Mother of God, was one such building, and we have references
to other Mithraic cathedrals, some of which were later turned into fire-temples
by the Sasanians. The buildings in Old Nisa and Kishan monuments open another
chapter in the story.
is unthinkable that the Roman Empire, where the official religion was Mithraism
for almost half-a-millennium, or at least as it is admitted, several of the
emperors were outspoken followers of Mithra, the only house of the worship for
the emperors and the Roman nobility should have been confined to underground
crypts which were used for community chapels. That part of the building in the
baths of Caracalla set apart for worship show that magnificent halls were also
dedicated for Mithraic worship. The basilica of Trajan is another such temple.
Trajan is depicted elsewhere with the Mithraic Cap of Liberty, and while we are
mentioning Trajan let me throw out this thought for consideration that the wars
of the Romans against the Parthians were in many instances a proto-type of the
later Crusades in the Middle Ages, that is to say, an attempt to posses the Holy
Land where Mithra was born and had preached.
or Mirans or Milans were scattered all over the ancient world as great centers
of Mithraism from Milan in Italy to numerous Milans and Mirans in Iran to Miran
near lake 'Lob Nor' not far from Turfan.
Cult and the Doctrine
the extant remains, literary and archaeological, of the religion of Mithra, we
gather that the salvation of man, after the slaying of the Bull, is symbolized
in the obtaining of blessed eternal life by partaking the holy meal in the
community of the brethren.
Iranian origin of this divine supper is proved by the terminology. In the
Armenian rites the meat is nishkhark, Persian Nushkhare, the edible thing of
immortality, the corresponding liquid element nushabe, the water of immortality.
The whole meal is the eucharistia, the Greek form of Iranian hu-khoresht, the
good meal, the divine meal.
two ancient Iranian words for the holy repast in the Gathas are myazda and
myastra; one gives the Persian miz and Latin mass, and the other gives Greek
musterion, mystery. That is why Mithraism as well as Christianity are mystery
religions. Secrecy is not essential to the myastra.
regards the word Messiah itself, it might be interesting to point out that the
western Iranian form is Missa, and the eastern misi, possible originals of the
Arabic and Hebrew forms of the word which were popular etymology related to the
root for rubbing and anointing, and incidentally for the first time used in the
Bible for an Iranian, Cyrus. The word would then mean mediator, supported by
Plutarch's mesites and confirmed in the Sorkh Kotal inscription.
the divine meal, the Lord's Supper, apparently the Cup used for the nushabe
became the holiest object in the service. That cup figures very prominently in
Persian literature and especially in the mystical poems. The cup has seven lines
or measures corresponding to the seven degrees in Mithraism. The full cup is for
the Pir or the Father, who is know as the Pir of the seven lines. In the West it
gave rise to the "Graded cup", Latin gradalis> grail. The story of
the Holy Grail as well as the Arthurian legends will occupy our attention at
to remnants of Mithraism in Iran, at its best it survives in Iranian mysticism
represented by the Divan-e Shams, the Golshan-e Raz, and above all, in the poems
of Hafez, and of course in the string influence it exerted on Islamic Sufism,
which is quite distinct from Iranian mysticism.
sects, there is a survival of Mithraism in the Ahl-e Haq and the Yazidis, and
other small sects scattered in closed communities.
Europe the remnants such as the medieval Albigensis and Bogomils are considered
to be Manicheans. No doubt that they were influenced by Manichean doctrines just
as the Christian Church was, but they are more likely to be remnants of the
followers of Mithra, and the case of the Bogomils is more clear in as much as
the name composed of Bog, bagh, special title of Mithra, and mil, the same word
as Mihr, which in the Slavic languages even carries the meaning of live as in
Persian mehr. Bogomil is then the etymological and semantic equivalent of the
Soghdian Bagh Misi.
is written in the Bayan al- Adyan, that "the Manicheans say that Jesus
called men to Zoroaster."
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