An Overview of the History of Mithraism

The article belowA History of the worship of Mithras, and Mithraism as a Mystery Religion” was originally published in the mithraeum.info website. Kindly note that the images and accompanying inserted below do not appear in the original article posting in the mithraeum.info website.

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Mithraism is the worship of the god Mithras, best known as an ancient Roman Mystery Religion. Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian deity Mitra or Mithra, and it is by that name that he was known the Persians. Mithra was one of the minor deities under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon, from 1,500 BCE onward. Since the beginning, Mithra, or Mithras has been associated with the Light of the Sun, Truthfulness, and Mediation.

Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the 1st century CE and continued to the end of the 4th Century CE.  During this time the worship of Mithras spread throughout the ancient world. Mithraeums, Roman temples of the Mithraic Mysteries, are found in almost every ancient European country; Britain, Spain, Germany and the rest of Western and Eastern Europe, and even into Aftrica.    It is believed that the Romans first encountered the worship of Mithras  within the religion of Zoroastrianism in the Eastern provinces of the Empire, near the Persian border.  There are various theories as to the beginnings of Roman Mithraism, and exactly how much Persian information was incorporated in the Roman Mysteries.  Today most of what is known about Mithrasim comes from archaeological remains from Mithraeums, dedicatory inscriptions, iconography, and a small amount of literary evidence from the Classical world. 

Aspects of Mithras the God

Mitra, or Mithra  is the Indo-Iranian name for the Roman god Mithras. Mitra is known from the ancient  Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is a name known from the Zoroastrian pantheon. In Zoroastrianism, Mithra is one of the “yazatas”, or minor deities under Ahura-Mazda. In Zoroastrianism Mithra is a god of Light that mediates between heaven and earth. Mithra also presides over honorable contracts and mediation.

Magi

Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Mithras is mentioned both in the Vedas, the ancient holy books of Hindusim, and he is also named in the hymns of the Zoroastrian Avesta, which was written between 224-640 CE as a compilation of older religious oral traditions.

The Mysteries of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a “mystery cult.” A Mystery Cult is  an organized,  secret system of learning and worship through which participants undergo ritual  ritual initiations to confirm various stages of knowledge and inner development. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are over a hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the Tauroctony,  the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull. The ceiling of the mithraeum was often painted with stars to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.

Bible_museum_-_Mithrasheiligtum

A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr) depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in the previous photo this posting (Source:Wolfgang Sauber for Public Domain). Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Very little Mithraic liturgical text has survived, but much is known from temple imagery and inscription. It is known that in certain rites mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. It is also known that the  structure of Mithraism was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a ruling planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner, under the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade. It is known that it was possible for Mithraic initiates to be members of more than one cult, as inscriptions from various Mithraists have shown.

Click to Enlarge] The stages of Roman Mithraism: Stage 1: Cerax (Raven); – Stage 2-Nymphos (Bride); Stage 3-Miles (Soldier); Stage 4-Leo (Lion); Stage 5-Perses (Persian); Stage 6- Heliodrommus (Sun-Runner); Stage 7-Pater (Father) (Picture sources: Hinnels, 1988). Note that term “Bride” often used to denote “Nymphos” for the second stage is simplistic at best. The Latin term should actually be in the feminine “Nymphe” and not the masculine “Nymphos” or a male bride which possibly may suggest something of a mystical male-female fusion. The reasons for this are not as yet clear, but it seems consistent with Roman or Western (as opposed to the original Iranian) Mithraism which is believed to have excluded women from its rituals and membership. Note that in the final grade (Stage VII-Father) there is a distinct Persian cap symbolizing the cap of Mithras (Picture sources: Cerax, Nymphos, Miles from Hinnels, 1985; Leo, Persian, and Heliodrommus, and Pater in Public Domain).

Mithraic Iconography

There is a rich and cohesive body of iconography which has survived within the various Mithraeum temples. Central to each mithraeum there was the tauroctony, the image of the bull slaying which was shown at the main altar.  In the tauroctony Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He looks away from the bull while  half-straddling its back, and pulling  the bull’s head back by its nostrils with his left hand. Mithras is plunging a dagger into the bull’s shoulder with his right hand.  Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles. Often the bull’s tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull’s back. The scene is bracketed at the sides by the two smaller figures of Cautes and Cautopates, both of whom wear costume similar to that of Mithras. Cautes is to the right, holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer’s left there is  Cautopates, who holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.

Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome (Source: Eskipaper.com). Note the dog and serpent heading towards the gushing blood pouring down from the bull’s neck as the the scorpion heads towards the dying bull’s testicles.

In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.

Mithraism and the Ancient World

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was widely practiced among the Roman Legions legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian’s wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas show s Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), government officials, and even also merchants and even slaves.

-Mithraeum Rome San Clemente

The Mithraeum located under Rome’s Basilica of San Clemente (Source: Public Domain).

The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.

Entrance to the Temple of Hatra in Iraq, possibly dedicated to Mithras (Source: Public Domain).

As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have “trickled up” the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century “resurgence of paganism,” when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.

kurd-engaged-in-worship-of-mithras

Kurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Source: Kasraian & Arshi, 1993, Plate 80). Note how he stands below an opening allowing for the “shining of the light”, almost exactly as seen with the statue in Ostia, Italy. These particular Kurds are said to pay homage to Mithras three times a day.

Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE.  Although Christianity and Mithraism were rival cults Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. It was these groups as a combined whole that were the greatest competition to Christianity.

The End of Ancient Mithraism

Mithraism as an organized religion seems to have been in trouble almost immediately after about 313 CE, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The power centers of Mithraism were in Rome, the area closest to the newly Christian state. A great number of its adherents were part of the government and the Legions. In order to maintain the good graces of the Emperor many Mithraists seem to have left or even turned against the worship of Mithras. From this time onward there is archaeological evidence of Mithraeums being abandoned and even desecrated and destroyed. This was certainly encouraged by the early Church.  Christians saw Mithraism as a devilish imitation of what they believed to be the one true religion, and they frequently broke into and destroyed Mithraic temples with “official” approval.

Mithradates as Magus

An interesting relief at the ruins of Arsameia, the capital of the kingdom of Commagene in 1st century BC. King Mithradates I Kallinikos of Commagene (100–70 BC) dressed as the Zoroastrian Magi (left) shakes hands with the Greek god Hercules (Source:Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division; Photo originally by Mani Moradi). Note that Hercules in Commagene also represented the Persian god Artagnes. Commagene like the Pontus was a small post-Achaemenid Iranian kingdom in Anatolia situated squeezed between Parthia to its east and the expanding Roman Empire to its west. Various versions of Mithradates’ crown continue to appear among various mystical sects of Western Iran, notably Kurdistan.

Although evidence is not conclusive it is thought that Mithraism may have lacked a clear and cohesive organization and hierarchy between individual groups, as Christianity was to have later. If this is the case,  then an already depleted Mithraic cult must have found it difficult indeed to stem a rising tide of official opposition. Individual Mithraeums and groups seem to have fallen one by one without a system of mutual support.

The last known archaeological dating from a Mithraeum is from 408 CE. It is entirely possible that pockets of Mithraism survived later than that, but it is certain that there was in essence no public Mithraic cult in the Roman world after that time.

The Modern Rediscovery of Mithraism

Very little popular knowledge of Mithraism survived the ancient world until the 20th century. There were a few literary references to a cult known as Mithraism which survived through the Middle Ages in literature, and there were even a very few bits of iconography to attest that the cult did indeed exist. However, no in-depth study of Mithraism was attempted until the work of Franz Cumont, (1868-1947). Cumont participated in a great amount of new archaeology and research into Mithraism, and formulated the theory that that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism. He wrote two books, ” Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra” in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer “Syrians”), freedmen in the imperial bureaucracy, and slaves.

Mithras-Legacy

Mithras’ Enduring Legacy? (Left) Mithras at Taghe Bostan, Western Iran; (Middle) Deo Sol Invictus, Italy; (Right) The Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, New York.

Cumont’s large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated Mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont’s theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce’s and Frantz Grenet’s History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.

Mithraism as a Modern Religion

As modern scholars have continued to research and rebuild the basics of Mithraism, there has been a corresponding rise of contemporary active Religious interest in the Mithraic Mysteries. In the last two decades the number of people actively aspiring to worship Mithras, (and to become initiated in his Mysteries) has grown exponentially. Mithraism has come from being a forgotten, dead ancient cult remembered only by specialized academics to a path often mentioned among modern Pagans, occultists, reconstructionists and reenactors.

Modern scholarship has made more Mithraic knowledge available to the world than has been available for many centuries. Such information is crucial, yet it is perhaps not the entire reason why the idea of Mithraism as a living path has been gaining popular interest.

-mithraeum

The Mithraeum of Seven Gates, Ostia (Source: Philip Coppens). As noted by Philip Coppens: “The Cult of Mithras, rather than Christianity, almost became the religion that dominated Western Europe. It failed, but intriguingly, we now hardly know anything about it”.

The rediscovery of Mithraism has shown the Mithraic Mysteries to be a religious path amazingly well suited to the modern world. It is an organized, honorable path of Virtue, yet one that accepts and even incorporates other religions. It is a path presided over by a guiding Savior God – but yet one that demands that practitioners learn, grow and become powerful spiritual beings in their own right. It is a path where belief is honored . Yet it is also a path where knowledge and direct experience are considered to be crucial to spiritual understanding.

Mithraism may well become a much-needed bridge between various religions and faiths that exist in the world of today. To those from Christian and other monotheistic backgrounds, Mithraism offers a positive religion of the Light that is presided over by a strong Savior God. To those practicing various Pagan or New Age paths, Mithraism offers organization, systematic knowledge and growth, and a path that historically respects a wide variety of other religious paths and world cultures.

The Future of Mithraism

While the future of Mithraism is of course uncertain, it is still possible to focus on specific facts that are likely to continue. Firstly, it is very unlikely that Mithraism will “slip back into the shadows” to become obscure once again. Mithraic information recovered over the past several decades will continue to be available, and new Mithraic sites, artifacts and inscriptions will continue to be recovered.

It is also likely that a general religious interest in Mithraism will continue to rise. One by one the religions of the ancient world are being reclaimed. It is impossible to say if Mithraism will ever again regain the world position it held during the Roman Empire, it is possible to say that from this point onward there will always be at least a few people who honor Mithras in a religious manner.

Whether organized groups take hold and and organized group Mysteries are rebuilt in the future will be very much determined by what takes place in the present and near future. Mithraeum has been formed to help this possibility become reality.

UBC Lecture (November 29, 2019): Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe

Kaveh Farrokh will be providing a comprehensive lecture on November 29, 2019 at the University of British Columbia:

“Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe”

Lecture Time & Location: 29 November 2019 6:30-8:30 pm – Room 120, CK Choi Building – For details view below poster – and also click here …). The lecture is free, however due to limited seating interested participants are encouraged to obtain their (Free) tickets (for details view below poster – and also click here …)

This lecture will be hosted by the Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies, Persian Language and Iranian Studies Initiative at UBC (University of British Columbia), UBC Asian Studies, UBC Persian Club and the UBC Zoroastrian Student Association.

Abstract & Overview of Lecture

This lecture provides a synoptic overview of the civilizational relations between Greater ancient Iran and Europa (Greco-Roman civilization as well continental Europe). The discussion is initiated with an examination of the conduits of exchange between Greater ancient Iran (the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties of Iran as well as the role of Northern Iranian peoples), the Caucasus and Europa. The lecture then provides an overview of learning exchanges between east and west spanning the time era from the Achaemenids into the Post-Sassanian eras, followed by examples of artistic, architectural, and engineering exchanges between Greco-Roman and Iranian civilizations. Select examples of the ancient Iranian legacy influence upon the European continent are also discussed, followed (time permitting) by examples of the musical legacy of ancient Iran as well as Iranian-European exchanges in the culinary domain.

Select References & Readings

Ahmed, A. & Zaman, O. (eds.) (2018). Dialogue Between Cultures & Exchange of Knowledge And Cultural Ideas between Iran, Turkey & Central Asia With Special reference to the Sasanian & Gupta Dynasty, Proceedings of Conference 8-10 February, 2018. Assam, India: Department of Persian Guawahati University.

Akhvledinai & Khimshiasvili, (2003). Impact of the Achaemenian architecture on Iberian kingdom: Fourth-first centuries BC. The First International Conference on the Ancient Cultural Relations Between Iran and Western Asia, Abstracts of Papers, Tehran, Iran, August 16-18, 2003, Tehran: Iran Cultural Fairs Institute.

Angelakis, A.N., Mays, L.W., Koutsoyiannis, D., Mamassis, N. (2012). Evolution of Water Supply through the Millennia. London & New York: IWA Publishing.

Asutay-Effenberger, N. & Daim, F. (eds.) (2019). Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture]. Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums.

Azarpay, G. (2000). Sasanian art beyond the Persian world. In Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods: Rejection and Revival c.238 BC-AD 642, Proceedings of a Seminar in memory of Vladimir G. Lukonin (ed. J. Curtis), London: British Museum Press, pp.67-75.

Azkaei, P.S. (1383/2004). حکیم رازی (حکمت طبیعی و نظام فلسفی) [(The) Wise Razi (Natural Wisdom and System of Philosophy)]. Tehran, Iran. Entesharate Tarh-e Now.

Babaev, I., Gagoshidze, I., & Knauß, F. S. (2007). An Achaemenid “Palace” at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan) Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006. Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, Volume 13, Numbers 1-2, pp. 31-45.

Beckwith C.I. (2011). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press.

Canepa, M. P. (2010). Distant displays of power: understanding cross-cultural interaction interaction among the elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran and Sui-Tang China. Ars Orientalis, Vol. 38, Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia, pp. 121-154.

Carduso, E.R.F. (2015). Diplomacy and oriental influence in the court of Cordoba (9th to 10th centuries). Dissertation, Department of History of Islamic Mediterranean Societies, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Compareti, M. (2019). Assimilation and Adaptation of Foreign Elements in Late Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Taq-i Bustan. In Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture] (eds. N. Asutay-Effenberger & F. Daim), Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, pp.19-36.

Curatola, G., & Scarcia, G. (Tr. M. Shore, 2007). The Art and Architecture of Persia. New York: Abbeville Press.

During J., Mirabdolbaghi, Z., & Safvat, D. (1991). The Art of Persian Music. Mage Publishers.

Farhat, H. (2004). The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Farrokh, K. (2018). Germania, Vikings, Saxons and Ancient Iran. Persian Heritage, 90, pp.28-30.

Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Kubic, A., & Oshterinani, M.T. (2017). An Examination of Parthian and Sasanian Military Helmets. In “Crowns, hats, turbans and helmets: Headgear in Iranian history volume I” (K. Maksymiuk & Gh. Karamian, Eds.), Siedlce University & Tehran Azad University, pp.121-163.

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

Farrokh, K. (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا/کویر (انتشارات ققنوس ۱۳۹۰ و انتشارات طاق بستان ۱۳۹۰) – see Book review from peer-reviewed Iranshenasi Journal

Feltham, H. (2010). Lions, Silks and Silver: the Influence of Sassanian Persia. Sino-Platonic Papers, 206, pp. 1-51.

Freely, J. (2009). Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gagoshidze, Y. M. (1992). The Temples at Dedoplis Mindori. East and West, 42, pp. 27-48.

Garsoïan, N. (1985). Byzantium and the Sassanians. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 568-592.

Gheverghese, J.G. (1991). The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. London: I.B. Tauris.

Gnoli, G. & Panaino, A. (eds.) (2009). Studies in History of Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrology in Memory of David Pingree – Serie Orientale Roma CII. Rome: Italy: Istituto Italiano per L’Africa e L’Oriente.

Kayser, P., & Waringo, G. (2003). L’aqueduc souterrain des Raschpëtzer: un monument Antique de l’art de l’ingénieur au Luxembourg [The underground aqueduct of Raschpëtzer: an ancient monument of the art of engineering in Luxembourg]. Revue Archéologique de l’Est, vol. 52, pp. 429-444.

Kurz, O. (1985). Cultural relations between Parthia and Rome. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 559-567.

Miller, A.C. (2006). Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (12), pp. 615–617.

Miller, L.C. (1999). Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz. Great Britain: Routledge.

Overlaet, B. (2018). Sasanian, Central Asian and Byzantine Iconography – Patterned Silks and Cross-Cultural Exchange. In B. Bühler & V. Freiberger (eds.), Der Goldschatz von Sânnicolau Mare [The Gold Treasure of Sânnicolau Mare]. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, pp. 139-152.

Roberts, A.M. (2013). The Crossing Paths of Greek and Persian Knowledge in the 9th-century Arabic ‘Book of Degrees’. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 293, pp.279-303.

Silva, J.A.M. (2019). The Influence of Gondeshapur Medicine during the Sassanid Dynasty and the Early Islamic Period. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 22 (9), pp. 531-540.

Sparati N. (2002).  L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea [The enigma of the Asittite arts of Calabria Ultra-Mediterranean]. Mammola, Italy: MuSaBa – Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore.

Ward. P. (1968). The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 112, No. 3, pp. 170-181.

Wulff, H. (1968). The Qanats of Iran. Scientific American, Vol. 218, No. 4, pp. 94–105.

Select Major Reference Resources in Kaveh Farrokh.com

Select Articles in Kavehfarrokh.com

Newly-found Petroglyph in Western Iran may have link to Mithraism

The article “Newly-found petroglyph in western Iran may have link to Mithraism” was published in Payvand News of Iran on October 1, 2019 (this was first reported in the Tehran Times). The version printed below has been slightly edited and provided with hyperlinks. Kindly note that excepting one photo, all other images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original Payvand News and Tehran Times postings.

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A newly-discovered rock-carving in western Iran could have a link to Mithraism, a prehistorical religion inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra. Some Iranian archaeologists suggest that the carving was created by a follower of Mithraism as it depicts a simple portrayal of a human with his right hand raised and an object in his hand. But, experts say it needs much more study in order to date the petroglyph.

A rock carving in western Iran (Source: Payvand News).

The petroglyph was found in western Kermanshah province on a mountainside near Taq-e Bostan, an archaeological complex, which consists of a series of properties from prehistoric to historical periods such as imposing Sassanid-era bas-reliefs, Morad-Hassel Tepe, an ancient village, a Parthian graveyard and a Sassanid hunting ground.

It was found upstream of a spring, inside a niche measuring about two meters by two meters, carved some 50 centimeters deep into the mountainside, archaeologist Keyvan Moumivand told IRNA on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a local tourism official has said that various archaeologists and teams of experts must conduct researches on the rock-carving in order to determine its origins and to make a definitive comment on it.

Depiction of Mithras with Persian dress of the (Parthian and Early-Mid Sassanian era type) slaying the sacred bull at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere. 

Some experts say that existence of some Mithraism symbols in parts of the historical zone, including one nearby the bas-relief of Ardashir II, reinforces a possibility that the petroglyph being associated with Mithraism, IRNA reported.

Mithraism, was the worship of Mithra, an Iranian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war in pre-Zoroastrian Iran. Known as Mithras in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, this deity, according to Britannica Encyclopedia, was honored as the patron of loyalty to the emperor. After the acceptance of Christianity by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, Mithraism rapidly declined.

Investiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (center) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithra (left) standing upon a lotus (Ghirshman, 1962 & Herrmann, 1977). Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy (possibly Roman Emperor Julian). Of interest are the emanating “Sun Rays”  from the head of Mithras.  Note the object being held by Mithras, which appears to be a barsum, or perhaps some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting” of Ardashir II as he receives the `Farr`(Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda (Picture source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

Taq-e Bostan is known for its bas-reliefs of Sassanian origin (3rd to 7th century CE). The carvings, some of the finest and best-preserved examples of Persian sculpture under the Sassanians, include representations of the investitures of Ardashir II (reigned 379-383 CE) and of Shapur III (383-388), the latter in a man-made cave carved in the form of an iwan (three-sided, barrel-vaulted hall, open at one end).

Fall 2019 Iranian Studies Initiative Lectures at the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia’s Persian and Iranian Studies Initiative of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia will be providing a series of lectures by prominent Iranian Studies scholars in the Fall of 2019. All of these lectures will be Free and open to the general public. As seen further below, the lecturers shall be Mahsa Rad, Dominic P. Brookshaw, Shahzad Bashir, Farzan Kermani, Morteza Asadi and Kaveh Farrokh.

The planned lectures and specific dates for these are as follows:

Mahsa Rad, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran; Visiting International Research Student at UBC: Loneliness and  Struggle: Self-Narratives of Iranian Trans People’s Livesروایت  زندگی ترنس های ایرانی (in Persian)[13 Sept. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Dominic P. Brookshaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Persian Literature at The Oriental Institute, Oxford Semi-Annual Lecture in Persian/Iranian Studies: One Poet Among Many: Hafez and the Transregional Literary Networks of 14th-Century Iran (in English) – [Sept. 27, 2019, lecture hall to be announced]

Shahzad Bashir, Ph.D., Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University: Imagining Time in India: Persian Chroniclers and their Interpreters (in English) – [11 Oct. 2019, 6-7:30 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Farzan Kermani, Ph.D. in Design, IIT Bombay: Iranian Art After Islam: With a Look at Some Renowned Iranian Calligraphersهنر ایران پس از اسلام: با نگاهی به سرگذشت چند خوشنویس بلندآوازه – (in Persian) – [25 Oct. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Morteza Asadi, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; former Assistant Professor of Economy at Kharazmi University, Tehran: Political Economy of Oil Curse: The Case of Post-Revolutionary Iran (in English) – [8 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Kaveh Farrokh, Ph.D., Professor of History & Academic Advisor for Analytica Iranica, Methodolgica Governance University, Paris, France: Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europa during the Classical Era (in English) – [29 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Readers further interested in Kaveh Farrokh’s upcoming lecture are encouraged to download two of his peer-reviewed articles as well as the Dissertation of Sheda Vasseqhi below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

PhD Dissertation by Sheda Vasseqhi (University of New England; academic supervision team Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh): Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In  the Origins Of Western Civilization.

See also:

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.

Shab-e Yalda: A Warm Welcome to Winter, Felicitous Farewell to Fall

The article Shab-e Yalda: A warm welcome to winter, felicitous farewell to fall” was originally posted by the Tehran Times on December 20, 2016. Kindly note that two of the images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original Tehran Times report. In addition, one of the points made by the article is disputed, and this is entered into the text for the benefit of readers.

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Once again, Iranians from all walks of life and all around the globe are arranging to celebrate Shab-e Yalda (Yalda Night), which falls on December 20.

The auspicious yet thousands-year-old occasion, known as the longest and darkest night of the year, marks the last eve of autumn and the beginning of winter.

Shab-e Yalda is also called Shab-e Chelleh that literally meaning the night of the forty. One of the dominant features of the feast is Chelleh Neshini (sitting for Chelleh), a social context during which families and friends usually gather in the cozy ambiance of home of an elder such as grandparents, aunts or uncles to rejoice in warmth of one another’s company.

Some opt for making phone calls to friends and close relatives or send text messages to congratulate them on this night.

Guests are served with fresh fruits and colorful Ajil (a mixture of dry fruits, seeds and nuts) in bowls. To Iranians however, the dry fruits are somehow a reminiscence of the abundance of summer and the fresh fruits are an invocation for food during winter.

A marquetry work by artist Qumars Sayyad depicts a rural Iranian family reunion celebrating the Yalda Night (Source: Tehran Times).

All food items are arranged on a spread known as Sofreh (traditional table cloth available in various materials and patterns), usually by women of the house.

Following a fresh and hot dinner, people recite poetry, narrate stories, chant, play musical instruments or just chat in the coziness of their company until midnight or so.

Of all ancient rituals, there are mostly two festivals that are unanimously celebrated by Iranians today, Yalda Night and the Persian New Year or Nowruz that means the birth of a new day.

From a wider point of view, human beings often mourn some endings and celebrate most beginnings. The Iranian nation has strong social and historical fibers to celebrate when it comes to the death of a season that gives birth to another.

Welcome to winter varies region to region

Yalda Night is celebrated in different parts of the country traditionally as a welcome to winter, though it encompasses regional variations and themes. In what follows some of them have been given:

Natives to the northwestern Azarbaijan region believe that eating watermelon will not let the cold of winter into their bones. Also, on this night, new brides carry gifts to brides-to-be of the family.

In Tabriz, the capital of East Azarbaijan Province, local musicians known as ‘Aashigh’ play traditional instruments and sing songs from ancient Persian legends on Yalda. Aashighs are local artists who play a great role in preserving oral culture and they can recite poetry spontaneously.

In the northwestern Ardabil Province, people ask the Chelleh Bozorg (first forty days of winter) to promise them to be moderate as they wish for a good winter time.

Watermelon and pomegranates as symbols of bounty are the traditional fresh fruits of this night. It is believed that eating watermelon before the arrival of winter can immunize one against cold and illness (Source: Tehran Times).

Families in the southern city of Shiraz, Fars Province, spread a Sofreh (Persian table cloth, mostly spread on the floor) which is not very different from the Persian New Year spread. They normally place a mirror and an artistic depiction of Imam Ali (AS), the first Shia Imam, on the spread. In addition to typical Yalda food items, Halva Shekari (a kind of paste made of sugar, butter and sesame seeds) and Ranginak (Persian date cakes) are also served.

In the northern province of Gilan, however, Yalda is never complete without watermelons. It is assumed that anyone who eats watermelons on this day would not be thirsty in summer and cold in winter. Aoknous is a tempting and indispensable Gilani dish on Yalda Night.

People in the southeastern Kerman Province stay up most part of the night to welcome the arrival of the legendary Gharoun (Croesus) who is believed to bring wood for poor families in the disguise of a woodcutter. The wood logs would then turn into gold and bring prosperity and luck to the house. The ritual is of course a symbolic one.

One of the oldest Yalda rituals in the western Lorestan Province was when a group of small and teenage boys would go to the rooftops of houses and throw down their bags tied to the end of a long scarf from the chimney holes. They would sing songs, wishing prosperity and happiness for the owner who would fill their bag with Yalda treats. The children would state their gratitude accordingly by singing songs of merriment.

An Iranian lady recites poetry with the Book of Hafez during the night of Yalda; note the pomegranate and melon on the table spread (Source: Public Domain).

In the villages of northeastern Khorasan Province the groom’s family sends out gifts with a group of musical instrument players to the bride-to-be’s house. In this province, after dinner and festivities, people read out verses from the Shahnameh, a long epic poem by illustrious Persian poet Ferdowsi.

In one of the villages of Garmsar, north-central Semnan Province, people of one family or clan get together over a meal of khorous polo (cockcrow meat and rice dish), after which they chitchat with jokes, anecdotes and short stories.

It is customary for people in the western province of Kermanshah that they stay up most of the night by eating, singing and telling stories to abide with the mother of the world in giving birth to her daughter, the sun.

Mosaic of Christ as Sol in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis located below the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica (Source: Public Domain). While commonly interpreted as representing Christ, the figure is virtually identical to the pre-Christian representations of Mithra (note fluttering Iranian-style cloak on the mosaic figure).

Good to know

  • Yalda Night is celebrated on the last day of Azar (the last month of autumn) and before the first day of Dey (the first month of winter).
  • Watermelon and pomegranate are amongst the most distinguished features of Yalda Night, though a few days before Yalda, the fruits’ prices may soar.
  • Yalda, though not very common, is a female Persian name.
  • In ancient Iranian calendar, winter is divided into two parts, Chelleh Bozorg (the bigger forty) from 22nd of December to 30th of January and Chelleh Koochak (the smaller forty) from 30th January to 10th of March.
  • The word Yalda, meaning birth, was imported from Syriac into the Persian language by the Syriac Christians. NOTE BY Kaveh Farrokh.com – the claim of Syriac origins can be disputed – the following observation is made with respect to the linguistic roots of the term /Yalda/:

The term /da/ in Yalda is not of the Hamito-Semetic linguistic family, but instead belongs to the wider Indo-European language families. In Avestan, the term /Daēva/ is broadly defined as “divine being” (Herrenschmidt & Kellens, 1993, pp. 599-602) (in Old Iranian: /Daiva/), which is derived from older Indo-Iranian /Daivá/ (God), which in turn is traced to (undifferentiated) Proto Indo-European (PIE) /Deiu̯ó/ (God). According to Pokorny’s Master PIE lexicon the /Da/ or /Daē/ affix in /Daēva/ is defined as: “day, sun, glitter, to shine, deity, god” (Pokorny, 1959-1969 & 1989, pp.183-187). The legacy of Yalda is an essence rooted in the ancient Indo-European mythological tradition.“ [This excerpt has been published in the Fezana journal: Farrokh, K. (2015). Yalda: an enduring legacy from ancient Persia. Fezana Journal (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), Vol. 29, No.3, Fall/September, pp. 30-33.]

  • Narratives say that Yalda Night marks the birth of winter and the triumph of the sun as the days grow longer and colder.
  • Ancient Iranians assumed Naneh Sarma begins to descend on earth by Yalda Night. Literally meaning coldness grandma, Naneh Sarma is a folklore Persian character who brings in the coldness during the wintertime.