Mithraism and Plato

Is Mithraism A Religious Manifestation of Platonic Soteriological Cosmology?

This post is both an extract from the opening of the second chapter of my Warwick Thesis ‘Astronomical and Celestial Symbolism in Ancient Religions’, and also a taster of the paper I will be delivering at the Warwick University Classics Postgraduate Colloquium in June.


‘Each soul He assigned to one star…

And he that has lived his time well shall return again to his native star.’[1]

This chapter begins the exploration into the astronomical knowledge contained within ancient Mediterranean religions. The Mithraic Mysteries are here used as a proto-type for the subsequent study of Judaism and early Christianity. Although Mithraism was founded post-Judaism and at roughly the same time as the Christian Gospels were written there is already almost universal agreement among scholars that astronomical imagery was a central feature of the Mithraic cult. However, opinions differ as to the nature and purpose of this astronomical imagery, ranging from whether it was merely aesthetic, to whether it represented the central tenets of Mithraic doctrine. This chapter not only supports the latter theory, but also aims to demonstrate that the astronomical content of the Mithraic Mysteries was based on contemporary philosophical theories concerning the structure of the cosmos and its relationship to the soul, namely the works of Plato.

First, Platonic theories concerning metempsychosis and the structure of the cosmos (drawn mostly from Timaeus, Epinomis, Republic X and Phaedrus) will be outlined, and the transmission of these ideas in Rome and the Latin speaking West explained in order to present an overview of the philosophical climate into which Mithraism was born. Secondly, this chapter will provide an in-depth, though not exhaustive, analysis of how the art, architecture, rituals and doctrine of the cult were influenced by these Platonic-based theories of the soul and its relationship to the stars. This second section will begin by describing the cosmic nature of the Mithraic temples (sg.mithraeum; pl.mithraea) which were constructed so as to represent the universe: complete with axis, equator, ecliptic, solstices and equinoxes among other features. Then the study will turn to the central feature of all mithraea, the tauroctony or bull-slaying scene, which will be examined in its role as celestial map and establisher of Mithras as the equinoctial point of Aries among other manifestations. The exploration will then turn to other key iconographical figures such as the dadophoroi (torch-bearers), also known as Cautes and Cautopates, who appear very frequently in Mithraic art, and the important leontocephalic god who features less commonly. Finally the chapter will explore the very limited data that pertains to the activities, rituals and doctrines that existed within the religion, in order to confirm that Platonic soteriology did indeed form the central tenets of Mithraic practice.

In short, this chapter aims to establish these five primary conclusions:

i. The Mithraic Cult was soteriological

         a.Salvation concerned the souls relationship to the cosmos as per Plato.

ii. The mithraeum represented (i.e. was) the Universe/Cosmos

         a. The tauroctony/Mithras represented (i.e. was) the spring equinox, the door was the vernal equinox, and the two benches represent the north and south sides of the ecliptic/zodiac.
         b. Mithras also performed a key role as bringer (and guider) of souls, among other identities.
         c. The leontocephalic god represented the Platonic World-Soul or gatekeeper between the eighth fixed sphere and the realm of the Demiurge.
iii. Salvation was achieved through a relationship with the Cosmos/Mithraeum

         a. Plato determined that every soul belonged to a star.[2]
         b. The initiates practiced spiritual ascension through the seven planetary spheres (grades) in order to guarantee their souls return to their star upon death.
         c. The ‘Soul Gates’ of Cancer and Capricorn acted as entry points.

iv. The initiates began their soul journeys while living

         a. The ‘seven grades’, associated with the planetary spheres, indicated where you had reached on your journey.
         b. When you died you would begin your soul journey from where you had reached while living e.g. a member of the sixth grade need only ascend twice more, whereas a member of the second grade needed to ascend through six more spheres (regardless they had a ‘head start’ on non-members).

v. Women were excluded from membership while male slaves weren’t

          a. Plato determined that female souls were less evolved than male souls.[3] By definition only male souls could begin the cosmo-spiritual journey.

[1] Plato Timaeus: 41d-42b.

[2] Plato Timaeus: 41d.

[3] Plato Timaeus: 41d-42b; 90e-91a.

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