By: Dr. Esmail Nooriala
The Marriage of Mithraism and Christianity
If mythology is the way an ancient community used to look at its surrounding world, life and death, we can surely say that the changing of seasons is the main stage where the theatre of Gods is played upon.
Look around yourself in Denver. We are going to celebrate Halloween soon. By looking deeply into its meaning and rituals, one can immediately detect that they are the reminiscence of old "pagan" agricultural rites, beliefs and ceremonies.
The same is true about the beginning of the New Year a few days after the arrival of Equinox, which is the longest night of the year, from whose morrow the nights begin to become shorter and days longer.
Sometimes it is impossible to trace the origins of some of such festivities, and, on the other hand, at many times, such as the case of the New Year, we have ample documents to understand its origins. These documents show that the last week of December is related to the mythological birth of an Arian God whose name is Mithra that, according to their beliefs, happens at the night of Equinox.
Mithra, a derivate of the Aryan word Mei, means "relationship". Mithra is the God of friendship, love, and any other mutual contracts and exchanges. He supervises these relationships and punishes those who break their woes. To fulfill this function of supervision, he is situated in the sky, with the Sun and stars being his watchful eyes. He is called "the God of thousand eyes and ears". He is also the God of Sun and the last day of each week is called Sunday in his honor. Consequently, he is the God of purifying fire in front of which people settled their contracts and nations set up their boundaries.
Arians celebrated Equinox and decorated an evergreen tree, called "sarve" which is also known as the cypress tree, in their homes. Being straight, upright and resistant to the cold weather (symbol of hardship) this tree was thought appropriate to represent Mithra. The younger girls had their "wishes" symbolically wrapped in colorful silk cloth and hung them on the tree with lots of presents for Mithra, to answer their prayers.
When the Aryan tribes, who lived in Central Asia some 8000 years ago, began to sweep down from the steppes and scatter in different directions some 4000 years ago, they took their gods with them. They went east towards China, south-east to India, southwest to Iranian plateau, and west to Anatoly (present-day Turkey), Greece and north Europe. Their descendants finally reached British Isles through the Roman conquest of Britain.
Mithraism was actually flourishing all through the vast Roman Empire by that time and Mithraic temples have been discovered in central London, an old settlement of Roman army. It was the official religion of Roman aristocracy and army for quite a long time. As Renan, the famous historian, asserts: "If the growth of Christianity had been halted by some mortal illness, the world would have become Mithraic"
The story of Christianity in Roman Empire is a long and complicated one. It began at the grass roots of the society and soon grew into a popular religion. The Roman Emperor then decided to adopt it as the new official religion of his realm. The result was a mixture of Christianity and Mithraism. Cooper, the American writer and historian, confirming that Christianity has a sacrament which is strongly borrowed from the Mithraism, writes: "Mithraic rites included wine as a symbol of sacrificial blood and used bread in wafers or small loaves marked with a cross to symbolize flesh. Mithra’s followers called each other ‘brother’ and were led by a priest call ‘father’ whose symbols were his staff and ring, his hat, and a crooked sword. Christianity adopted the crook and staff as the shepherd’s crook and the hat became stiffened and was called a Miter (from the name of god, Mithras). Thus was derived the symbolic heraldry of the bishop. Similarly, Mithraic priests were ruled by a ‘father of fathers’, who lived in Rome. And he, like Pope, was elected by a council of priests."
Pope Leo, in the fourth century, proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th, a date that is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as many Armenians.
Again in the same tradition, Luther, the German reformer, in the 18th century, having learned about the Sarve tree, introduced the Christmas tree to the Germans. As Sarves were not much known in Germany and in most of Europe, the chosen tree became a genus of pine which was abundant in Europe.
So, this year, when celebrating the "birth of the Christ" and the advent of the New Year, think about one of the most ancient belief systems and rites of human beings, centered around the God of Sun. This is the meeting point of East and West, the melting pot of the human perpetual wish for love, peace and friendship between individuals and nations. As the mystics of the east say: "Call it be any name, if there is love in your intention, all names become one – that of love itself!"
Delivered to a gathering in Denver