Mithras
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Basic Information

In the 1st century AD, two new religions were spreading rapidly through the Roman Empire. One was Christianity, the other was the Mithraic Cult. Mithras was a Sun God imported from the east (coming from India or Iran) and adapted via the process/philosophy known interpretatio romana. The Mystery Cult of Mithras quickly gained in popularity among the ranks of soldiers deployed throughout the Empire. Mithraism eventually died out, leaving no surviving texts written by worshipers, so all we know about it is outsider views written by members of the competing contemporaneous religions.

Here's a few things we know about the god and the religion: Mithras seems to have been inspired by and adapted from Mithra of Zoroastrianism, but quickly turned into something else entirely once left in the gnostic hands of the Mystery Cult. Mithras was said to be born from rock or stone. Evidence suggests he was not originally a sun-god, that seems to have been added later. His name literally means "contract" and he was regarded as a god of justice who disliked liars. His worship involved the sacrifice of bulls, and rituals designed to induce altered states of consciousness. An initiate to the cult would first undergo a rebirth ritual, making them born again. Several surviving pieces of artwork depict Mithras as an archer or hunter. He is sometimes associated with another Roman deity, Sol Invictus (the conquering sun).

A temple of Mithras is known as a Mithraeum.

Ancient star charts have been found at some such Mithras sites, suggesting that the sacrifice of bulls was astrological in nature or goal, and that the bull represented Taurus (sun sign). Statues of Mithras frequently depicted him in the process of slaying a bull with a short sword or dagger. One theory holds that the magical goal of "killing the sky-bull" practice was to shift the date of the equinox, and change global weather patterns and climate.

Sources

Bibliography
1. Bull Killer, Sun Lord @Archaeology.org
3. TopTenz YouTube Video discusses the Mithras cult and 9 other cults.

Game and Story Use

  • A paladin of Mithras could be an interesting character, adding a side of astrologer (and a willingness to experiment with drugs?) to your typical straight-laced warrior-priest.
  • If your world has Minotaurs as a race, or at least has individual powerful Minotaurs, then Mithras may be the patron deity of those battle against them.
  • The ritual sacrifice of a bull to/by Mithras could be part of a great work of magic.
    • The no-big-deal, non-sinister interpretation could be a spell to improve the weather for a while. Going on an ocean voyage? Here, let's kill this bull first to protect your vessel from storms.
    • On the more epic end of the scale, this magic could realign the heavens and change the fate of the entire world. The stars are right, or at least they will be after we offer up a few more cows!
  • Wouldn't be too hard to adapt Mithras into a worship of something far more sinister.
    • Translation a la Interpretatio Cthulhiana may give you some ideas.
    • The bull may be metaphorical in more ways than one. Perhaps it's a human sacrifice instead.
    • Ancient Rome considered Mithras a good guy and acceptable for worship by Roman Centurions. Unacceptable gods such as the horned god Baal Hammon from Carthaginian Mythology were worshiped by Rome's enemies. Moloch and other gods associated with the title Baal were said to use bull-shaped statues in their child sacrifice rituals in Gehenna. So maybe Mithras' real metaphor and purpose in killing those bulls is to declare his hatred of Carthage or some other cult within the territories of the Roman Empire.
      • Or maybe, for an even a darker twist, Mithras worship might be reinterpreted as an invasive Carthaginian or Gehennan cult hidden in plain sight, just under the authorities noses, and infiltrating the ranks of the Roman army!
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