Journal of Roman Studies


The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of their Genesis*

Roger Becka1

a1 Erindale College, University of Toronto

In 1896 Franz Cumont published, as the second volume of his Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, the dossier of documents on the basis of which he was to render, three years later, the first truly historical account of the transformation of Mithra-worship from a branch of Iranian Mazdaism to a Roman mystery cult.

This transformative process, as he envisaged it, was long and evolutionary. He used a geological metaphor to describe its stages, as theology and practice were passed down the ages and across the lands from Iran to Rome:

Le fond de cette religion, sa couche inférieure et primordiale, est la foi de l'ancien Iran, d'où elle tire son origine. Au-dessus de ce substratum mazdéen, s'est déposé en Babylonie un sédiment épais de doctrines sémitiques, puis en Asie Mineure les croyances locales y ont ajouté quelques alluvions. Enfin, une végétation touffue d'idées helléniques a grandi sur ce sol fertile, et dérobe en partie à nos recherches sa véritable nature.

Central to Cumont's scenario was Anatolia and the Mazdean diaspora that survived (and flourished) there after the fall of the Achaemenian empire. It was there during the Hellenistic Age that ‘Mithraism received approximately its definitive form’, although Cumont hesitated to pinpoint the precise time and area.


* This paper was first delivered to a joint seminar of the Department of Classics and the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto (November, 1996). I am grateful for the helpful comments made there and afterwards, especially those of Timothy Barnes, Alexander Jones, Peter Richardson, and John Rist. I am also grateful to the scholars and friends who have patiently read and thoughtfully commented on the drafts, in particular G. W. Bowersock, Mary Boyce, Fred Brenk, Giovanni Casadio, Richard Gordon, John Hinnells, Peter Kingsley, Henri Lavagne, Reinhold Merkelbach, Robert Turcan, and finally to the Editorial Committee of the Journal.

The following abbreviations are used:

EM = J. Duchesne-Guillemin (ed.), Études Mithriaques (1978)

Gordon 1996 = R. L. Gordon, Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World: Studies in Mithraism and Religious Art

JMS = Journal of Mithraic Studies.

Kommagene = F. K. Dörner (ed.), Kommagene, Antike Welt Sondernummer (1975)

MS = J. R. Hinnells (ed.), Mithraic Studies (2 vols, 1975)

SM = J. R. Hinnells (ed.), Studies in Mithraism (1994)

V +number = Vermaseren, op. cit. (n. 22)