Date Written : Dec 24, 2004
Date Modified : Dec 24, 2004
"If Christianity was somehow stopped at its birth, whole world would be following Mithraism today." - Ernest Renan (1823-1892) was an important French theorist who wrote about a variety of topics. His famous essay "What is a Nation?" (Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?) was first delivered as a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882.
Is 25th December the correct date for celebrating Christmas ?
Most of the Christians celebrate Christmas, birth date of Jesus Christ, on 25 December. But why "Most", why not all ? Because few Christians still celebrate Christmas on 06 January, believed to be the correct date. In 354 some Western churches, including those of Rome, commemorated the birth of Christ on December 25th. But why was Dec 25th chosen as a date for celebrations. Actually, Christianity borrowed and then replaced Mithraism, which was the main religion in Persia and Rome. Followers of Mithraism used to worship the Sun-god "Mitra" or "Mithra". It was the birthday of Mithra, 25 December (winter solstice), that was taken by the early Christians as the birthday of Jesus as a need and urgency by the early Christians to compromise with existing traditions. The real birthday of Christ was abandoned in favor of the birthday of Mithra. The worshippers of Mithra were called "Soldiers of Mithra" which is the origin of the term "Soldiers of Christ."
But how and why was Mithraism abandoned? To understand that we need to study the origin and spreading of Mithraism from India to Persia to Rome.
Origins of Mithraism.
The festival that is now known as Christmas was actually a celebration for the Vedic Solar Deity Mitra. This Hindu deity Mitra was also worshiped by the Persians as Mithra, which later was adopted by Rome and remained even after the conversion to Christianity.
In India, Mitra was recognized as 'God of Heavenly Light' as a form of the sun and an ally of Indra, King of Heaven. Mitra was often prayed to and invoked along with Varuna, the Hindu god of moral law and true speech. Jointly known as 'Mitra-Varuna', it was believed that together they would uphold order in the world while travelling in a shining chariot and living in a golden mansion with a thousand pillars and a thousands doors."These two are the Almighty of the Gods, they are noble. They will make our people full of vigor. May we attain you, Mitra and Varuna, wherever Heaven and the days overflow." - Rig Veda vii.65 ( Mitra and Varuna are in all hymns to the Sun as the Divine Lord and Friend)
Mitra was praised in the Vedic hymns as 'God of Light', 'Protector of Truth', and 'Enemy of Falsehood'. The worship of Mitra extended westwards to Persia (Iran) and eastwards towards China.
With the rapid expansion of the Persian Empire, the worship of Mitra (or Mithra) spread westwards. The Persian version of Mithra was called the "Light of the World". The "Mithra" also appears in the Zoroastrian Avesta, the most holy scripture of Zorashtrians, which is influenced by Rigved, another Hindu Scripture. The followers of Mithraism explained the world in terms of two ultimate and opposing principles, one good (depicted as light) and the other evil (darkness). Human beings must choose which side they will fight for; they are trapped in the conflict between light and darkness. Mithra came to be regarded as the most powerful mediator who could help humans ward off attacks from demonic forces.
Mithra is still venerated today by the Parsis, the descendants of the Persian Zorasthrians, now living mainly in India after been driven out by Muslims. Their temples to Mithra are now called 'dar-i Mihr' (The Court of Mithra). In Iran, until 1979, traditional Mithraic holidays and customs were practiced. The Iranian New Year celebration called 'Nou-Ruz' which takes place during the spring and continues for thirteen days. During this time Mehr (Mithra) was extolled as ancient god of the sun. The 'Mihragan' festival in honor of Mithra, Judge of Iran, also ran for a period of 5 days with great rejoicing and in a spirit of deep devotion.
Mithraism was also practised in the western provinces of China. In Chinese mythology, Mithra came to be known as 'The Friend'. To this day, Mithra is represented as a military General in Chinese statues, and is considered to be the friend of man in this life and his protector against evil in the next. Interestingly, in few of the North and Central Indian languages, the meaning of Mitra is "a friend".
The Expansion of the Faith from India to Persia to Rome.
The worship of Mithra spread from northern India into the western provinces of China and also westerwards to Persia. Mithraism also traveled farther north-westward and became the State religion of Armenia. Its rulers, anxious to claim descent from the glorious kings of the past, adopted Mithradates as their royal name (so five kings of Georgia, and Eupator of the Bosporus). Mithraism then entered Asia Minor, especially Pontus and Cappadocia. Here it came into contact with the Phrygian cult of Attis and Cybele from which it adopted a number of ideas and practices. This religion came after Alexander's conquest, in touch with the Western World. When finally the Romans took possession of the Kingdom of Pergamum, occupied Asia Minor and stationed two legions of soldiers on the Euphrates, the success of Mithraism in the West was secured. It spread rapidly from the Bosporus to the Atlantic, from Illyria to Britain. Its foremost apostles were the legionaries; hence it spread first to the frontier stations of the Roman army. Mithraism was emphatically a soldier religion: Mithra, its hero, was especially a divinity of fidelity, manliness, and bravery; the stress it laid on good fellowship and brotherliness, its exclusion of women, and the secret bond amongst its members have suggested the idea that Mithraism was Masonry amongst the Roman soldiery. Mithraism in its Romanised form Sol Invictus – was the first ‘universal religion’ of the Greco-Roman world.
The Romans and Persians were arch enemies. But it history tells us that Romans ended up worshipping the god of their chief political enemy, the Persians. The Roman historian Quintus Rufus recorded in his book History of Alexander that before going into battle against the 'anti-Mithraean country' of Rome, the Persian soldiers would pray to Mithra for victory. However, after the two enemy civilizations had been in contact for more than a thousand years, the worship of Mithra finally spread from the Persians through the Phrygians of Turkey to the Romans. The Romans viewed Persia as a land of wisdom and mystery, and Persian religious teachings appealed to those Romans who found the established state religion uninspiring. It peaked around the year 300 AD when it became the official religion of the empire. At that time, in every town and city, in every military garrison and outpost from Syria to the Scottish frontier, was to be found a Mithraeum and officiating priests of the religion. Adapted for Roman taste, the most popular Romanised form of Mithraism was Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, whose re-birth was celebrated as the climax of the mid-winter Saturnalia, on 25th December
Decline of Mithraism after Constantine got converted to Christianity.
Mithraism lacked a professional clergy; it had no hierarchical organisation disciplined by common rules. Though popular throughout the empire, the religion's ceremonials had remained heavily dependent upon state patronage and support. After Constantine, Emperor from 306-337 C.E., converted on the eve of a battle in 312 C.E., Christianity was made the state religion. When state funding was transferred to the Church by Constantine and his successors, Mithraism's fate was sealed.
All emperors following Constantine were openly hostile towards Mithraism. The religion was persecuted on the grounds that it was the religion of Persians, the arch-enemies of the Romans. Fatally, during the reign of Emperor Gratian (367-383 AD), its sanctuaries were sacked of their wealth and closed. Thirty years later, Theodosius made worship of Mithras punishable by death. The god had fallen – but the imagery and iconography of Mithras were expropriated wholesale by the more comprehensive and favoured cult of Christ.
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