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MITHRAS, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall!
' Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all!'
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

(from) A Song to Mithras Rudyard Kipling

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. These were universally underground, windowless, and often incorporated running water where it could be managed.

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. Scholars call the sacrifice image the Tauroctony. In the images, Mithras is standing over the bull, his knee on it's spine, slicing open its throat. The bull also has a separate bleeding wound in its side, and a dog and a snake are beneath it, drinking the blood that pours out. Also beneath the bull is a scorpion, who is attacking the bull's testicles with it's pincers. We don't really know what this all means or represents. It may be an instructional record of an elaborate and cruel sacrifice ritual involving four animals. 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. It may be some sort of coded myth of some event in the story of Mithras, a metaphor whose meaning has been lost to time. Since Mithraic traditions were a mystery cult, the intended meaning of these signs and symbols were not made public, and were lost to the ages. Statue and mural versions of the Tauroctony have survived, often at sites that also have pictures of some great feast.

Based on a mosaic found in a surviving Mithraeum, the grades of initiation in the Mithraic cult were:

  • Corax (Raven)
  • Nymphobus (Bridegroom)
  • Miles (Soldier)
  • Perses (Persian)
  • Heliodromus (Sun-Runner)
  • Pater (Father)

Although, as noted above, we have no real idea what mysteries where revealed at each grade, nor any other real understanding of what it all meant.


1. Bull Killer, Sun Lord
3. TopTenz YouTube Video discusses the Mithras cult and 9 other cults.
5. TV: Raised By Wolves on HBO is a sci-fi show in which one of the two factions fighting for control of an potential colony world is a group of Mithras cultists. They play fast and loose with the details of Mithraism, blending Mithras with Sol Invictus and a dash of Christianity, but it's potentially a source for some imagery and ideas of what a Mithraic cult twenty minutes into the future after the end might look like.

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!
  • If Mithras is said to have killed the Sky Bull, does this tie him to Gilgamesh, slayer of The Bull of Heaven?
  • 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 (not the synonym for hell, but the Valley of Hinnom that inspired the word). 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!
  • A portable Tauroctony could serve as a macguffin, or an embedded one at a Mithraeum could be a location the characters have to visit to find a clue. The meaning of the animals is unknown so you could interpret as a coded myth and make up your own meaning. The image could be:
    • instructions to conduct a ritual sacrifice that powers some sort of magic, as mentioned above,
    • If the animals represent constellations, it could be an astronomy / astrology code indicating:
      • a particular time or date that a particular ritual must be performed, or a prophecy will be fulfilled, or more generally when the stars are right for magic.
      • or even a star chart indicating the star or planet of origin of an alien or god.
      • If it helps, scorpio is the house that astrologers claim rules the genitals…
    • an encoded alchemical process, where each animal is an element or chemical, and the three different wounds represent three processes that must be performed in the correct sequence.
    • the four animals could represent four other mythological characters that are somehow involved in your plotline. A minotaur or a god like Apollo (or Mithras, duh) who has an association with cattle. The biblical serpent from the Garden of Eden, Apophis of Egyptian mythology, or any of the several snake-themed gods from Etruscan mythology such as Tarchies or Tuchulcha. And the scorpion could be a scorpion man of Mesopotamian mythology, or either of two Egyptian Pharoahs known as the Scorpion King, or the goddesses Hedetet or Serket (also from Egypt).
    • the Tauroctony is often at the same sites as artwork depicting a feast, so the "sacrifice" could just be a recipe for the ancient Mithraic equivalent of a turducken, served with a spicy scorpion-venom sauce. Thanks, but, I'll just have the mashed potatoes.
    • Given that the bull is getting podded by the scorpion, a recipe for "prairie oysters" may not be too far off.
    • More generally, thyesthai - a Greek term for religious feasting on a sacrificed animal - was normal in the classical world and it is entirely likely that a bull sacrificed to Mithras would later become a cult banquet. Ritual magic associated with a sacrifice might also see the participants seeking to imbibe the bull's strength and ferocity with their meal.
  • Bernard Cornwell's Warlord cycle - a pseudo-historical re-imagining of the Arthur legends - includes significant appearances by the Cult of Mithras, including an (imagined) initiation rite. Not all that surprising in immediately post-Roman Britain.
    • There's also an amusing vignette in which Merlin casually reveals to the protagonist that there are three levels of illumination that he has never heard of (basically, the cult as he knows it only goes as high as miles and he has no idea that the grades of perses or above actually exist … presumably there has been no-one so elevated in Britain for quite some time).
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