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date: 04 December 2020


  • Roger Beck


An ancient Indo-Iranian god adopted in the Roman empire as the principal deity of a mystery cult which flourished in the 2nd and 3rd cents. ce. Iranian Mithra was a god of compact (the literal meaning of his name), cattle-herding, and the dawn light, aspects of which survive (or were re-created) in his western manifestation, since Roman Mithras was a sun-god (‘deus sol invictus Mithras’, ‘invincible sun god Mithras’), a ‘bull-killer’, and ‘cattle-thief’, and the saviour of the sworn brothers of his cult.

The cult is known primarily from its archaeological remains. Over 400 find-spots are recorded, many of them excavated meeting-places. These and the c. 1,000 dedicatory inscriptions give a good idea of cult life and membership. Some 1,150 pieces of sculpture (and a few frescos) carry an extraordinarily rich sacred art, although the iconography remains frustratingly elusive in default of the explicatory sacred texts. Literary references to Mithras and Mithraism are as scarce as the material remains are abundant.

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