Mithra and Mithraism in Iran
Closely connected with Zoroastrianism, Mithraism was the worship of the ancient Indo-Iranian god of sun and light, Mehr (Mithra). Mithra was the most important deity of the ancient Iranian pantheon, second only to Ahuramazda. Part of the Avesta is dedicated to Mithra, who is depicted as the all observing god of heavenly light, the guardian of oaths, the protector of the righteous in this world, and above all, as the archenemy of the powers of evil and darkness.
Mithra and Anahita are the only gods that are speciﬁcally mentioned in the Achaemenid inscriptions along with Ahuramazda. When the Zoroastrian calendar was created, with numerous dedications to individual gods, Mithra received the month Mehr (September/ October), probably because he was believed to have a special link with the sun, which ripened the harvest. The autumn thanksgiving festival celebrated on the day called Mehr in the month of Mehr was called Mehregan.
Despite his connection with the sun, Mithra functioned preeminently in the ethical sphere. The word Mithra was a common noun that meant “covenant, contract, the treaty” and, as such, Mithra was the celestial deity who oversaw all solemn agreements that people made among themselves. Later on, Mithra was personiﬁed as a great judge assessing the deeds of men after death. He was also a war god, ﬁghting on behalf of the good, and protecting the virtuous.
As a divinity of ﬁdelity, mutual obligation, manliness, and bravery, Mithra was particularly revered by the military. The stress which the creed laid on good fellowship and brotherliness, and the secret bond amongst its members have suggested the idea that freemasonry among the Roman soldiers had its roots in Mithraism, and this secured the wide success of this religion in the West. Unlike its eastern branch, the western worship of Mithra, however, had few connections with Zoroastrianism, apart from its emphasis on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil.
One of the central episodes of Mithraic mythology was the offering of the cosmic bull. Whereas in Iranian paganism the bull was believed to have been slain by Ahriman, Mithra’s followers maintained that Mithra was entitled to sacriﬁce the bull by god’s will. Although reluctant to obey the order, Mithra tacitly agreed, and the offering gave miraculous results from the bull’s seed and blood, plant life was generated, day and night began to alternate, and Time was created.
However, the evil spirits were also awakened, and the struggle between Good and Evil began. Mithra’s slaying of the bull may have represented the sacriﬁcing of the animal instinct to ﬁnd the path to the divine and was possibly the symbol for the condition of man’s life. When the bull was slain, Mithra returned to heaven, having promised to his followers to be a mediator between them and God.
He also promised to return and bring everlasting life to his supporters. Mithraism had a great inﬂuence on early Christianity, and many Mithraism ideas were incorporated into it. Thus, Mithraic followers believed that Mithra was born on December 21, the longest night of the year, after which the days become longer and light triumphs over darkness; very soon, however, because of some errors in counting the leap year, this date shifted to December 25.
Later this date was believed to be the date of Christ’s birth. Likewise, shepherds were the ﬁrst people to ﬁnd out about Mithra, and they brought him the gifts of gold and incense which, in the case of the Christ, are attributed to the Niagi. Because Mithra was associated with the sun, his followers marked Sunday as his day of worship and called it the Lord’s Day. Mithraic practices also included baptism in holy water, with a Simulated death and resurrection being part of the ceremony. After passing seven grades of initiation into the cult, the converts were “reborn” in Mithra. Another Mithraism custom was the partaking of a sacred meal of bread and wine, similar to one of the most sacred Christian rites. Confession and the forgiving of sins were all commonalities between Mithraism and Christianity.
The Mithraism worshipped in caverns, of which a large number has been found. Many of the Mithraic shrines were later converted into churches or mosques. The cavern always contained a well. Access to the cavern often consisted of a system of subterranean passages, which were used in the initiation ceremonies. Three times a day prayer was offered to the sun toward the east, south, and west, according to the hour.
At its zenith during the 3rd century A.D., having spread from India to Gaul and Britain, Mithraism was early Christianity’s most serious rival. Like Christianity, Mithraism had its sacraments. But the life of Mithra exercised a less far-reaching appeal than the life of Christ, and the Mithraism cult excluded women. The worship of Mithra seems to have collapsed quite suddenly when imperial favor ceased to be with Mithraism. It eventually vanished in the early 4th century A.D after the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Mazdak and Mazdakism in Iran
As in the case of many other Prophets, our knowledge of Mazdak’s life is very limited. He may have been a Zoroastrian priest with Manichaean sympathies. He began his preaching about 488 A.D, and within the course of a few months, his followers from every stratum of society from King Qobad I downward could be counted sands.
Unfortunately, we have very scanty positive knowledge of Mazdak’s prophecies, the tenets of which are mentioned brieﬂy and with unbounded vituperation by some Zoroastrian, Christian, and Islamic sources. According to Mazdakism, there exist two original principles, Good (Light) and Evil (Darkness). Light acts by free will and design. Darkness, blindly and by chance. By accident the two became mixed, producing the world. The god of Light, who is to be worshiped, is enthroned in paradise, having before him four powers perception, intelligence, memory, and joy. By moral conduct and ascetic life, man should seek to release the in the world.
Mazdak pointed out the value of self-restraint and renunciation of all sense pleasures. He asserted that the desire for pleasure and possessions constituted the universal causes of all hatred and strife. To reduce these causes and to encourage brotherly helpfulness, Mazdak favored the abolition of all social inequalities, chieﬂy of private property, and called believers to a sharing of possessions, primitive communism. We do not know how far Mazdak went. His detractors even accused him of advocating the sharing of wives, which is unlikely.
Although Mazdak was treacherously murdered around 530, and many of his adherents were killed in a great massacre, the roots of Mazdakism were not eradicated. The religion survived in secret into Islamic times when some of the early Islamic Iranian liberation movements cited Mazdak as their authority and got their inspiration from his teachings.