From Mithra to Chrismas

25th December was the day when winter solstice was celebrated in ancient Rome — Nita Chicooree-Mercier

25th December was the day when winter solstice was celebrated in ancient Rome. The tradition of celebrating the birth of the sun dates back to the cult of Sol Invictus, the unvanquished sun. It was introduced by Roman emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century B.C. as a new cult which was acceptable to all the provinces of the Roman Empire. The solar cult was chosen because of the universality of the sun and the predominant cult did not exclude existing cults in the provinces, which was the very essence of polytheism.

Sol Invictus was influenced by an even more ancient cult of Mithra, an Indo-Persian god in ancient Persia. The cult of Mithra was observed beyond the frontiers of Persia and it was most popular in the army for its symbolism of friendship and loyalty. Mithra was said to be born from a rock and was presented with a bull which he had to sacrifice to create humans and nature.

The cult of the solar divinity, god of light, was spread by the Roman army in its military expeditions in the region covering the neighbourhood of Persia, the Hebrew kingdoms conquered by Romans which they called Judea and Palestinas, to Egypt, Spain, Germany, France, England, and other places in Europe.

Temples dedicated to Mithra were built in all these countries, and Roman soldiers built statues of Mithra all along their expedition routes and carved his name on walls. The worship of Mithra which included a banquet during which worshipers shared wine and bread was largely seen as a monotheist cult. In the Roman tradition, at the end of the banquet, Mithra was taken to heaven by Apollo, as a symbol of hope after death. In other traditions, donkeys and horses were popular messengers flying to heaven.

Zarathustra. Until today, there are uncertainties pertaining to the period when the prophet was born in the north of Persia, which is Afghanistan today. According to some sources, he existed in the 7th century at a time when Buddha and Confucius were well-known. Others believed he lived in 13th or 12th century. He was considered as the founder of a new religion, the Ahura-Mazda, also perceived as monotheist with emphasis on dualism and the manichean concept of good and evil.

At the beginning, Zarathustra integrated Mithra, the solar divinity and presented him as a creation of Mazda, God in ancient Persian. Mithra was represented next to God and a female deity called Anahita. Mazdeism was met with resistance from the military class in Persia who cherished the cult of Mithra only. Later, Zarathustra discarded the cult of Mithra because of animal sacrifice which he considered cruel. However, he kept the symbol of light for Mazdeism. The cult has been perpetuated by a minority in Iran today, and specially by Parsis in India who fled from the Arab invasion of Persia and still keep the sacred fire burning permanently.

Vedic God Mitra. No parallel is drawn between the Indo-Persian cult of Mithra and the Vedic god Mitra. However, there are striking similarities in their attributes: the principle of contract itself, based on friendship and loyalty, and the Sanskrit origin of the word ‘mit’ meaning friend. Probably, those who were called Aryans and settled for some time in south of Persia before leaving it and travelling to north India may have brought the cult with them.

Sol Invictus and Mithra. In the 3rd century, Emperor Aurelius found the name Mithra to be too foreign to integrate in Rome and chose to replace it by Sol Invictus. But temples dedicated to Mithra already existed and were found in several towns in France, England, Germany and the Middle-East. It was the most popular cult till the 4th century. Emperor Constantine was initially an adept of the sun god and chose Sunday as a tribute to the sun. He was the first emperor to convert to Christianism.

In the hot desert countries of Arabia, however, the Moon God Al-liyah was a major god. Because of the scorching sun during the day, people looked forward to the night when the moon gave them respite from the hot day. Al-Liyah was represented with his wife by his side. Later, the wife was eliminated. In the 7th century, during the phase of conversion, it was not difficult to make the moon crescent acceptable to the conquered regions because the moon was already popular.

Christianisation of Rome. At the beginning, mithraism as a monotheist cult co-existed with Christianism since the advent of the new religion in several countries. In the later 4th century A.D., the belief that no former religion should compete with Christianism gained ground. In Rome, emperor Theodosius eradicated all religions, and non-Christian temples were destroyed or replaced by churches. In the course of time, the same phenomenon was replicated in other countries.

The exact date of birth of Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, initially a Jewish rabbi whose teachings were used to form a new religion 70 years after his death by Paul was not known. So the winter solstice day of 25th December to celebrate the birth of the sun in the cult Sol Invictus was replaced as the birthday of Jesus who was also considered as having brought light to followers and a mass was held on that day. The Jewish festival of Hanoukka in December was also a response to the winter solstice celebration of Sol Invictus in Rome. It was a sign of resistance of Judaism to be assimilated in foreign cults. The tradition continues up to now.

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Paganism. What later Abrahamic religions called pagan beliefs and rites influenced monotheist religions in beliefs, customs and rites. The cult of the Sun was a major rite among the Celts in Europe. The Sun as lifegiver was worshipped in ancient Persia, Egypt, in Celtic culture, among Mayans and Aztecs in ancient Mexico. In India, those ancient rites have been preserved in their original form. Sunrise in the early morning is still greeted by Hindus as a sign of gratitude.

The story of Adam, the Arch of Noah, the deluge, banquet with followers, rising from the dead, later Chrismas tree, offerings of water, oil, gifts, presents, sweets and celebration with banquets and sharing of food in Abrahamic religions can be traced back to their forefathers’ popular cults. Revelation to man is what prompted Zarathustra to start a new religion, the messenger was a crow; in later religions, it was angels. The concept of contract between man and God pre-dated Zarathustra.

What later Abrahamic religions called ‘pagan’ beliefs and rites inspired monotheist religions. Probably, thanks to the Greeks and Romans, their existence was prolonged in Europe and the Middle-East after the advent of the new religions. What was a mild rejection of Mithraism in 7th B.C. in ancient Persia was replicated in the 4th century A.D. in Rome when Theodosius decided that no other monotheism should be seen to compete with the imported religion of Christianism by the apostles. Hence, the destruction of temples dedicated to the Sun and the demonization of the former cults with the negatively connoted term of ‘pagan’.

The more anxious believers distanced themselves from their forefathers’ religions in Europe and the Middle-East. The fiercer the rejection, the more the paranoia that accompanied the propagation of the new religions. Because of its non-missionary character and of its status as the first major monotheism, Judaism was the least affected by the spirit of conquest in the destruction of existing religions. On the contrary, Judaism and the place of its birth, the land of Israel, became a soft target for repeated assaults by anxious believers from Europe and the neighbouring Middle-Eastern countries.


*  Published in print edition on 22 December 2017

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