Jesus and Mithras Revisited: Shared Symbolism between Mithraism and the Higher Christian Mysteries

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Part of the problem in comparing Christianity to other mysteries is that it retains a very ancient text, while corresponding texts for other traditions were lost (often purposefully destroyed by Christians). And the gospels chosen for the Bible were chosen because they portray a human Jesus, rather than reveal mystery truths (which were not meant to be written down, anyway). In contrast, although a trove of Gnostic gospels was discovered in 1978, much of the ‘wisdom’ of other mystery traditions remains unknown to us. Thus, we know that certain Gnostic communities did use the story of Christ as a mystery, it is difficult to guess the details of their ‘higher mysteries.’ It is likely, however, that they are in tune with the many other mystery schools of their times
We can, therefore, look at the symbolism of other mystery traditions, and given what we know about common beliefs of the time, arrive at an interpretive reading of the symbols. This will be especially profitable when comparing Jesus to Mithras.
Mithraism is well suited to this task because, although little textual evidence remains, the sculpture and portrayals of Mithras are rich with symbolism. Although most of the symbols, rites and beliefs found in Mithraism probably came from earlier traditions, (thus it doesn’t need to copy from Christianity) it is possible that Mithraism borrowed features from Christianity. However, whether or not Mithras borrowed is not really important; the similarities between the worship of Christ and Mithras were so uncanny that they were remarked upon by Christian apologists, as well as criticized by enemies of Christianity. Specific parallels are mentioned. Who came first is not at all the issue, because as we’ve seen, neither of them did. Since early testimony however links the practice of Christianity most often with Mithraism, and since we know that Christianity was used as a mystery cult, Mithraism can help us reconstruct what the ‘higher mysteries’ of Jesus Christ might have looked like.

Symbolism in Mithraism and Christianity

Although there are few written remains of Mithraism, we can tell a lot about how his followers viewed him by looking at the artwork left in their tomb-like temples – the following is a summary based on an interpretation of these symbols; scholars still disagree about how much spiritual meaning can be read into them.
Mithras was often shown standing on a globe with a cross through it (representing the world and the cross between the elliptic of the sun and the celestial equator), wearing a lion’s head mask to identify him with the victorious sun on the spring equinox. Sometimes he was shown with the zodiac circle surrounding him, or else with specific symbols of constellations which also figured prominently in the myth. Many statues give him wings and a snake around his legs, and show him raising a lit torch – like the symbol of the Caduceus. He was seen as the bridge between heaven and earth; the spiraling snake may indicate either the unfolding of the cosmos or the ascent of the soul.

Inside of the cavern-like Mithraic temples (which were built in the image of the cosmos) was a symbolic ladder with 7 rungs, opening at ‘the 8th gate’, representing the path of initiation and likewise the afterlife journey of the soul.  In the center of each temple was a large image of the tauroctony, or Mithras greatest feat of slaying the bull. It is possible this symbolism developed along with the ‘discovery’ of precession of the equinoxes credited to Greek astrologer Hipparchos (c. 190 BC – c. 120 BC) although I believe this knowledge extends much further into history.

Although this central mystery of Mithraism appears to have little in common with Christianity, its symbolic meaning can be given esoteric meaning which equates it with the crucifixion.
The symbols of the cross and the sword not only look alike, but they have precisely the same function. Mithras slew the sacred bull (initiating the age of Taurus), and this sacrifice somehow cleaned the sins of initiates. Jesus slew the sacred lamb (initiating the age of Aries) and his followers were cleaned of their sins through its blood. In a fascinating passage, Jesus even says, “Do you think I came to bring peace? I tell you, I came not to bring peace but the sword.” The modern peace symbol is actually a picture of an inverted cross with broken arms – showing the defeat of Christianity, but more importantly, the process of downwards expansion. The “sword” Jesus mentions is probably the opposite, a vertical cross. (Although, the true opposite of the peace symbol would look like Poseidon’s trident, another ancient symbol of magic.)

There are further parallels. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is crucified along two thieves, (Demas and Gestas). According to Luke, one criminal reviles him, but the other recognizes him as the son of God. Jesus is portrayed in Christian art as crucified between them; they are designated by their gaze – one looks up, and the other looks down, in expectation of their fate.

Mithraism has a similar motif in the ‘two torchbearers’.

Just like the crucifixion, the Mithraic sacrifice takes place between the sun and moon and under the eye of the Father God (Jupiter, in the preceding plate). The good and bad thieves also have their correspondences in the two torch-bearers Cautes and Cautopates, who have as many meanings as the sacrifice itself. They are at every level reflections of the primal duality of light and darkness, life and death, spirit and matter, etc. Cautopates, with lowered torch, rules the autumn equinox and winter solstice, the barren half of the year; Cautes, with raised torch, is the return of fertility in spring and summer. (Godwin 106)

Godwin also points out that Mithraism envisioned “two keys, the silver one is the gate of Cancer which leads to the way of ancestors (Pitri-yana) and to reincarnation. The gold one is to the Gate of Capricorn, the Way of the Gods (Deva-yana) which leads beyond the Circle of Necessity, i.e. to release form the round of birth and death” (Godwin 106). We find these keys also in the Christian tradition: “Behold he [Peter] received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of binding and loosing is committed to him, the care of the whole Church and its government is given to him” (Epist., lib. V, ep. xx, in P.L., LXXVII, 745)].[2] In Christianity, the keys of represented the power to forgive sins, or also the power of church authority; they are represented in art as being gold and silver.

In the base relief Hercules Crowned, (1671), French sculptor Martin Desjardins captured much of the mystery symbolism. At his feet is the defeated dragon. Behind him is his symbol – the lion – hanging on the tree. He’s holding a staff (to symbolize the tree or bridge), has wings, and is about to be crowned by his companion goddess – who is holding a small statue (Nike, the Greek goddess of victory) over the world; showing him as king of the world. On the globe is the T or X shape of the zodiac path intersecting the sun’s path. These are symbols that any mystery initiate would have understood, and most of them can be applied equally to both Mithras and Jesus.

The image on the right, meanwhile, is a stained glass window of Jesus being anointed by Mary. There are no other symbols present; however the symbols do continue in tradition. “Christ” means anointed, or crowned. Despite refusing authority over the kingdoms of the world when tempted by Satan in the desert, he is nevertheless a king. He is always associated with a lion, and called the Lion of Judea. He is the defeater of Satan, the serpent. He was born in a cave or manger, and surrounded by animals – often mistranslated as “in a manger”. He is the tree of life, the bridge between heaven and earth, and like Mithras he is the controller of the precession of equinoxes; while Mithras defeated the bull under Taurus, in the time of Jesus the spring equinox had already progressed into Aries, the lamb. Jesus receives his kingship, Christ-hood or “anointing”, at the hands of his consort, Mary Magdalene.

Rituals of Mithraism and Christianity

While little is known of the actual ceremony of Mithraism, we have the testimonies of early Christian apologists, who recognized the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity and denounced them as diabolically inspired. The following passages by Justin Martyr and Tertullian mention baptism, communion, chrism – anointing the forehead with oil or a magical seal), ‘putting away sins’, and ‘producing an image’ of resurrection.

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body’; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is My blood’; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 60)

Although it has been argued that sharing a communal meal does not make a Eucharist, Justin clearly places the meal as an initiatory lunch, an integral part of the spiritual process, rather than a normal function of the community. He also does not take the opportunity to distinguish the precise meaning of the communal meal, but rather says that the same thing was done in Mithraism.
In the following passage, Tertullian mentions the “putting away of sins by a layer of his own”; which may refer to the inner-god or higher-self replacing the lower animal self. An image of the resurrection is also produced – as it was in other mysteries.

The question will arise, By whom is to be interpreted the sense of the passages which make for heresies? By the devil, of course, to whom pertain those wiles which pervert the truth, and who, by the mystic rites of his idols, vies even with the essential portions of the sacraments of God. He, too, baptizes some – that is, his own believers and faithful followers; he promises the putting away of sins by a layer (of his own); and if my memory still serves me, Mithras there, (in the kingdom of Satan,) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown. (Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40)

Tertullian also mentions a rite of initiation which may have been lost from the Christian tradition, which includes kneeling before a sword and being crowned. It appears to refer to Mithraic martyr-ideology; that Mithraics were to deny human authority, and, if pressed, reject government law in favor of divine law. Another reading may be that Mithraics are expected to eschew worldly possession and power, in favor of a spiritual humility. In either case, although the ritual seems to have been lost to Christianity, both concepts remain in Christian tradition.

Blush, ye fellow-soldiers of his, henceforth not to be condemned even by him, but by some soldier of Mithras, who, at his initiation in the gloomy cavern, in the camp, it may well be said, of darkness, when at the sword’s point a crown is presented to him, as though in mimicry of martyrdom, and thereupon put upon his head, is admonished to resist and east it off, and, if you like, transfer it to his shoulder, saying that Mithras is his crown. And thenceforth he is never crowned; and he has that for a mark to show who he is, if anywhere he be subjected to trial in respect of his religion; and he is at once believed to be a soldier of Mithras if he throws the crown away – if he say that in his god he has his crown. Let us take note of the devices of the devil, who is wont to ape some of God’s things with no other design than, by the faithfulness of his servants, to put us to shame, and to condemn us. (Tertullian, De corona. 15.)

Keep in mind that Christians would have no reason at this point to attempt to be more similar to their competitors; these similarities are listed because they are already well known, and hence, they demanded an answer – one which could not be given without use of the argument of diabolical mimicry.

Also, we can point out that Tertullian appears to have great personal knowledge of the mysteries of Mithras; and that in writing down the secrets of initiation, he is making a bold and ‘blasphemous’ attack against Mithraism.
While Christianity today has grown even further away from the mystery cult of Mithras, the similarities recorded between the two allow us to understand more about the mystery practices and initiation rituals of some Christian communities, and hence draw a picture of what the ‘greater’ mysteries of Jesus Christ may have looked like.

Was Christianity originally a Mystery Religion?

This is, of course, a loaded question. The answer is “yes” – and also “no”. It can be shown that the very earliest practices of Christianity coincided with popular mystery cults on many levels. Church leaders talked about “initiations, passwords, and mysteries” using exactly the same terms as other contemporary mystery religions. But it is the interpretation of Christianity which makes all the difference. It was the similarity of Christianity to mystery cults that made it define itself as different from mystery cults. Everyone who practiced levels initiation, allegorical interpretation, death and rebirth in this life (as opposed to the bodily resurrection) were basically kicked out. So if you define Christianity as ‘those communities of the early church who did not interpret themselves as a mystery’ and all other believers in Jesus Christ as Gnostics or Heretics, then yes, Christianity – by this violent, forced definition – wasn’t a mystery. However, even then the argument can only be that Christianity started with a historical founder and was immediately and irrevocably assimilated into the mystery tradition; to the exclusion of any specific details about that alleged historical founder.
At best, we can say that the passionate story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, his enigmatic parables and inner circle of disciples, the rituals he founded such as Baptism and the Eucharist, as well as the spiritual symbols of his saving role as sacrificial lamb and Logos, son of God, were perfectly suited for the production of a new mystery cult, blending the ancient tradition of Judaism with the Greek mysteries. We can also demonstrate that in fact, this basis was seized upon very early and that Christianity, at least from as early as Paul, had levels of initiation.
So more important, then, is who created the story and why. If Jesus was only a historical figure, and all of the qualities of a mystery were later added to the kernel of a real man, teacher, who was crucified, then we would expect the original story to be more secular, less phenomenal, less magical. But instead, as Christians apologists have pointed out, Jesus’ atoning death, victorious resurrection, intermediary position between a loving God are the core elements of Christianity from the beginning.
It is difficult to prove what came first; the orthodox rendition of biblical history is that mystery language, rituals and traditions became immediately fixed unto the alternative Jewish teachings of a historical Jesus. However, the biographical conditions of Jesus Christ, including his death and resurrection, so perfectly fit the pre-existing mystery cult format that his story was very early interpreted as a mystery.
So the real question to ask is, where did the story of Jesus really come from? There are only a few possible options:
1) Jesus was a historical figure who copied other mystery school traditions in the building of his own cult
2) Jesus was a historical figure upon which the literature of the mysteries was placed so thoroughly that no trace of him can be found.
3) Jesus was originally mystery literature that was mistaken as human.
The first option is logically and spiritually unsatisfying, and the second option is popular, but not necessary. It is the third option that is most fully justified by historical evidence.