Revising the Wikipedia Mithras article

Last night I sat down and spent several hours working on the Mithras article on Wikipedia.  The effort is probably futile, but the article has been one of the worst on Wikipedia, and a constant source of misinformation online.

My principle was to ensure that there was either a reference to a primary source, or to a modern Mithras specialist; or to remove the material.  The curse of information on Mithras online is the tendency to attribute without reference every event of the life of Jesus to Mithras, usually for reasons of religious hate.

This was all sparked by an email from another editor, “Fullstop”, who was trying to heal the article.  He supplied me with a very useful review by Roger Beck of a book on Mithras by Reinhold Merkelbach, which incidentally reviewed most of the scholarship.

He also supplied me with an article by Vermaseren [1] discussing the idea that Mithras (meaning Persian Mitra) was born from a woman, or was a son of Ahura-Mazda: 

The scarce literary evidence as well as the abundant archaeological material give us different versions of the way in which Mithras came into the world and it is hardly possible to reconcile the two.

In the Yasht 10, the hymn of the recent Avesta, in which Mithras is specially invoked, the Persian god of light appears resplendent in a golden colour on the top of the mountain Hara berezaiti, the present Elburz in Persia, from where he looks over the whole earth of the Aryan people.

This is not a description of a real birth, but this manifestation of the deity as the giver of light, pouring forth his largess every morning anew and, besides, the feminine name of the mountain were apt to lead to the conception of the birth of the god from a Mother-Goddess. Yet, the idea of Mithras as a son of Ahura-Mazda, the Knowing Lord, or as born naturally from a woman, though attested by some late Armenian writers, did not become traditional 3). Mithras’ birth remained an obscure affair:…

3) In general Cumont, Mon. Myst. Mithra I 160 f ; G. Messina, “Magi a Betlemme e una predizione di Zoroastro”, Roma 1933; Christensen, “L’Iran sous les Sassanides”, Copenhague 19442, 155.

The sloppiness of references in earlier writers on Mithras means that we are left to wonder just who said what.  Does anyone know who are referred to here?

UPDATE: An email tells me that Cumont, Textes et Monumentes II, pp.3-5 (online here), contains some Armenian sources.  And so it does.  First is a fragment of Eznik of Kolb, De Deo; then one from the Agathangelos.  Neither is to our purpose.

Next up is “Elisee Vartabed” (which may be French  but doesn’t sound Armenian) and his “History of Vartan”.  Apparently this is a 5th century author.  Cumont quotes two different French translations, which I have run into English:

[From the apology for Christianity addressed by the Armenian bishops to Mihr-Nerseh, the minister of the king of Persia, Yezdegerd II:]

You have said that God was born from a woman; you shouldn’t probe this, or express horror at the idea.  In fact Ormizd and Ahriman were born from a father, and not of a mother; if you think about it, you can’t accept that.  A thing still more singular: the god Mihr was born of a woman, as if one could have commerce with one’s own mother.

[Apparently a better translation of the last sentence:]

Your god Miher is not only born of a woman, but what is still more ridiculous, he is born from an incestuous commerce with his own mother!

[A little later:]

One of your most ancient sages has said that the god Mihr was born from a mother, who was of the human race; he is no less a king, son of God, and the valiant ally of the seven gods.

This is followed by a quotation from Moses of Chorene — also not relevant for us — and that’s the lot.

So Vermaseren’s “some late Armenian writers” reduces to one, the 5th century historian “Elisee Vartabed”, in a speech given by the Armenian bishops to the persecuting Sassanid Persian governor.   I wonder if there are any more?

So, what can be found out about this author?  Well, first, there is at least one English translation, from 1830, here, where he is called Elisaeus.  A more modern English version exists by Robert Thomson, Eliseus Vardapet: History of Vardan and the Armenian War, Harvard (1982).  The text does not seem to be online, however.  I might fix that by OCR’ing the 1830 version.

[1] M. J. Vermaseren, “The Miraculous Birth of Mithras“, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3/4 (1951), pp. 285-301


7 thoughts on “Revising the Wikipedia Mithras article

  1. “In the Yasht 10, the hymn of the recent Avesta, in which Mithras is specially invoked, the Persian god of light appears resplendent in a golden colour on the top of the mountain Hara berezaiti,”–I have always found comparisons of Mithras to Jesus silly, especially since they compare such generic points that just about any two gods could be said to share in common. What ancient god doesn’t have a birth story? or an association with a mountain? Obviously in this very quote we could see a similarity to the transfiguration, or even to that funny quote Jerome provides from the gospel according to the Hebrews, “even now did my mother the Holy Spirit pick me up by one of my hairs and set me on the great mountain Tabor.”

  2. Roger,

    The Iranist G. Widengren writes:

    According to the “legend” of the mysteries Mithras was born from a rock, petra genetrix giving life to him. He is therefore de petra natus… We also know that Mithra was born on the shore of the river Araxes, Ps. Plutarch, De fluviis 23 par. 4 (where, however, a confusion is found in so far as this story is attributed to a son of Mithras), that his father hated women and therefore threw his sperm on a rock which afterwards was pregnant. These details are not as the great pioneer in Mithraic studies [Franz Cumont]assumed “de pure fantaisie”, on the contrary they are part of a birth myth attested among the Ossetians in Caucasus and have already in the Hurrian “Epic of Kumarbi” an unmistakable association. The localization of this scene of Mithra’s birth to the shore of the Araxes in Armenia confirms our presumption that north-western Iran and Armenia was the homeland of Mithraic mysteries. Also the shepherds who are seen on Mithraic reliefs in connection with the birth-scene possess their correspondence in Ossetic tales and Iranian salvation legends, and indicate likewise a north-western origin of the stories about Mithra’s birth (107).

    note 107:
    107 G. Widengren, “The Mithraic Mysteries in the Graeco-Roman World with Special Regard to their Iranian background”, La Persia e il mondo grecoromano Accad. Naz. dei Lincei 76(1966), pp. 444-45; I. M. Diakonoff, Phyrgian (Delmar, N.Y., 1985) p. xv suggests that the western Mithra might have originally been the Urartian Haldi.

    The above is from an article I wrote called “Eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus in Ancient Mythologies”

    Ethnobotanists also claim that Mithra had an association with soma, the mysterious elixir

    What follows is from another article “Soma among the Armenians”

    Mithra (Arm. Mher) was another Indo-Iranian deity once popular among the Armenians. In the Rig Veda (IX.108.16), Mitra is “pleased by soma”. In the Avesta, haoma is offered to Mithra (Yasht X.6). Mithra’s weapon is the mace or thunderbolt (vazra), similar to Indra’s bolt (vajra). The raven, an Amanita marker, was sacred to Mithra as it was to Verethragna, Vahagn’s Iranian cousin (35). According to Greek legend, Mithra was born in Armenia by the banks of the Arax river where, presumably, his killing of the bull of plenty took place (36). Ethnobotanists see several features of the soma cult in this god’s attributes. Called the “Capped One”, he is said to have been born from a rock or egg already wearing a cap, often painted red (37). His secret cult, which had strong astrological/alchemical/eschatological components, involved a sacred meal and meetings in caves and/or subterranean chambers. Apparently, Mithra originally was a weather god in Armenia, although this attribute was later acquired by his triumphant competitor, Vahagn (38). According to Strabo, in Achaemenid times, the satrap of Armenia “used to send to the Persian king twenty thousand foals every year at the time of the Mithracina” (39). This latter was a festival to Mithra when “it was the privilege of the Great King of Persia to become drunk” (with haoma?) (40). According to Pliny the Elder, in 66 A.D., when the Armenian king Trdat I travelled to Rome to receive coronation from the emperor Nero, he may have initiated Nero into certain “Magian” (?Mithraic) rites, involving a secret sacrament (41).

    Notes 35-41:
    35. A. J. Carnoy, “Iranian Mythology” in Mythology of All Races vol. VI p. 289.

    36. Plutarch, De fluviis, 23 par. 4.

    37. W. S. Shelley, The Elixir: an Alchemical Study of the Ergot Mushrooms, pp. 83-103.

    38. On the numerous storm gods of Armenia, see M. Abeghyan, Erker vol. 7 (Erevan, 1975) pp. 65-78.

    39. The Geography of Strabo, H. L. Jones, trans. (London, 1928;1988) (LCL, vol. V, p. 331) 11. 14. 9.

    40. Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, C. B. Gulick, trans. (LCL, vol. IV, p. 469) x, 434. Ananikian, p. 34 suggests that it was haoma-intoxication. HAOMA, p. 98:

    Among the situations where sauma seems most likely to have been used was at the inauguration of pre-Islamic Iranian rulers. This is indicated by King Wishtasp’s consumption of “hom and mang” at his “initiation”, which is still commemorated by Zoroastrians at the New Year…A reflection of the initiation of kings with sauma may be preserved in Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes III. 1-3: “A little while after the death of Darius [II], the new king made an expedition to Pasargadae that he might receive the royal initiation at the hands of the Persian priests. Here there is a sanctuary to a warlike goddess whom one might conjecture to be Athena. Into this sanctuary the candidate for initiation must pass, and after laying aside his own proper robe must put on that which Cyrus the Elder used to wear before he became king; then he must eat a cake of figs, chew some turpentine-wood, and drink a cup of sour milk. Whatever else is done besides this is unknown to outsiders”. Zoroaster also put on a garment when he came up from the hom liquid as, it seems, did his father Porushasp when he approached the hom and as also did Arda Wiraz. This suggests that a change of clothes may have been a regular feature of sauma-drinking in the initiation of Iranian rulers.

    41. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, a Selection, J. F. Healy trans. (New York, 1991) XXX.17, p.271.

  3. “Elisee Vartabed” (which may be French but doesn’t sound Armenian)

    “vartabed” – “master”, “teacher” in Armenian.

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