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The Mysteries of Mithra

Franz Cumont


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The Mysteries of Mithra is an illustrated book by Franz Cumont, that was first published in 1903. Chapters include: The Origins Of Mithraism; The Dissemination of Mithraism in the Roman Empire; Mithra and the Imperial Power of Rome; The Doctrine of the Mithraic Mysteries; The Mithraic Liturgy, Clergy and Devotees; Mithraism and the Religions of the Empire; and, Mithraic Art.

This book has 112 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1903. This is a translation by Thomas J. McCormack.

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Excerpt from 'The Mysteries of Mithra'

THE present work, in which we purpose to treat of the origin and history of the Mithraic religion, does not pretend to offer a picture of the downfall of paganism. We shall not attempt, even in a general way, to seek for the causes which explain the establishment of the Oriental religions in Italy; nor shall we endeavor to show how their doctrines, which were far more active as fermenting agents than the theories of the philosophers, decomposed the national beliefs on which the Roman state and the entire life of antiquity rested, and how the destruct on of the edifice which they had disintegrated was ultimately accomplished by Christianity. We shall not undertake to trace here the various phases of the battle waged between idolatry and the growing Church; this vast subject, which we hope some day to approach, lies beyond the scope of the present work. We are concerned here with one epoch only of this decisive revolution, it being our purpose to show with all the distinctness in our power how and why a certain Mazdean sect failed under the Cæsars to become the dominant religion of the empire.

The civilization of the Greeks had never succeeded in establishing itself among the Persians, and the Romans were no more successful in subjecting the Parthians to their sway. The significant fact which dominates the entire history of Hither Asia is that the Iranian world and the Græco-Latin world remained forever unamenable to reciprocal assimilation, forever sundered as much by a mutual repulsion, deep and instinctive, as by their hereditary hostility.

Nevertheless, the religion of the Magi, which was the highest blossom of the genius of Iran, exercised a deep influence on Occidental culture at three different periods. In the first place, Parseeism had made a very distinct impression on Judaism in its formative stage, and several of its cardinal doctrines were disseminated by Jewish colonists throughout the entire basin of the Mediterranean, and subsequently even forced themselves on orthodox Catholicism.

The influence of Mazdaism on European thought was still more direct, when Asia Minor was conquered by the Romans. Here, from time immemorial, colonies of Magi who had migrated from Babylon lived in obscurity, and, welding together their traditional beliefs and the doctrines of the Grecian thinkers, had elaborated little by little in these barbaric regions a religion original despite its complexity. At the beginning of our era, we see this religion suddenly emerging from the darkness, and pressing forward, rapidly and simultaneously, into the valleys of the Danube and the Rhine, and even into the heart of Italy. The nations of the Occident felt vividly the superiority of the Mazdean faith over their ancient national creeds, and the populace thronged to the altars of the exotic god. But the progress of the conquering religion was checked when it came in contact with Christianity. The two adversaries discovered with amazement, but with no inkling of their origin, the similarities which united them; and they severally accused the Spirit of Deception of having endeavored to caricature the sacredness of their religious rites. The conflict between the two was inevitable,--a ferocious and implacable duel: for the stake was the dominion of the world. No one has told the tale of its changing fortunes, and our imagination alone is left to picture the forgotten dramas that agitated the souls of the multitudes when they were called upon to choose between Ormadz and the Trinity. We know the result of the battle only: Mithraism was vanquished, as without doubt it should have been. The defeat which it suffered was not due entirely to the superiority of the evangelical ethics, nor to that of the apostolic doctrine regarding the teaching of the Mysteries; it perished, not only because it was encumbered with the onerous heritage of a superannuated past, but also because its liturgy and its theology had retained too much of its Asiatic coloring to be accepted by the Latin spirit without repugnance. For a converse reason, the same battle, waged in the same epoch in Persia between these same two rivals, was without success, if not without honor, for the Christians; and in the realms of the Sassanids, Zoroastrianism never once was in serious danger of being overthrown.

The defeat of Mithraism did not, however, utterly annihilate its power. It had prepared the minds of the Occident for the reception of a new faith, which, like itself, came also from the banks of the Euphrates, and which resumed hostilities with entirely different tactics. Manichæism appeared as its successor and continuator. This was the final assault made by Persia on the Occident,--an assault more sanguinary than the preceding, but one which was ultimately destined to be repulsed by the powerful resistance offered to it by the Christian empire.

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The foregoing rapid sketch will, I hope, give some idea of the great importance which the history of Mithraism possesses. A branch torn from the ancient Mazdean trunk, it has preserved in many respects the characteristics of the ancient worship of the Iranian tribes; and it will enable us by comparison to understand the extent, so much disputed, of the Avestan reformation. Again, if it has not inspired, it has at least contributed to give precise form to, certain doctrines of the Church, as the ideas relative to the powers of hell and to the end of the world. And thus both its rise and its decadence combine in explaining to us the formation of two great religions. In the heyday of its vigor, it exercised no less remarkable an influence on the society and government of Rome. Never, perhaps, not even in the epoch of the Mussulman invasion, was Europe in greater danger of being Asiaticized than in the third century of our era, and there was a moment in this period when Cæsarism was apparently on the point of being transformed into a Caliphate. The resemblances which the court of Diocletian bore to that of Chosroes have been frequently emphasized. It was the worship of the sun, and in particular the Mazdean theories, that disseminated the ideas upon which the deified sovereigns of the West endeavored to rear their monarchical absolutism. The rapid spread of the Persian Mysteries among all classes of the population served admirably the political ambitions of the emperors. A sudden inundation of Iranian and Semitic conceptions swept over the Occident, threatening to submerge everything that the genius of Greece and Rome had so laboriously erected, and when the flood subsided it left behind in the conscience of the people a deep sediment of Oriental beliefs, which have never been completely obliterated.

Production notes: This edition of The Mysteries of Mithra was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 27th May 2020, and updated on the 12th March 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'Women at the well' by Albert Dressler.

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