Podcast episode

Episode 121: Mithras and the Stars: Astral Elements in the Cult of Mithras

We look at the question of astral religion in Mithraism. We summarise a load of evidence from cult-iconography, bring it into conversation with Celsus (via Origen) and Porphyry, and consider the wildly-varying conclusions scholars have come to based on this evidence. We also do a bit of creative speculation of our own, because we can’t resist.


The mosaic flooring of the Felicissimus Mithræum at Ostia, from the west. The raven in the foreground represents the first grade, Corax, while the caduceus shows us that the planet in question is Mercury/Hermes.


Mosaic floor from the Sepphoris Synagogue (early 5th-century?) showing Sol, in his chariot, surrounded by the zodiac.

Works Cited in this Episode:

‘CIMRM’ refers to M.J. Vermaseren. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacæ. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1950-60. 2 vols.


  • The number Seven: (from Beck 1988, p. 12 n. 27): in the field of the bull-killing scene, e.g. CIMRM 368; on Mithras’ billowing cloak (thus signifying that the garment is the cosmos of which he is creator or controller), e.g. 390. Seven altars: e.g. 2264, and see the indices of CIMRM (both vols) s. “altar – seven.” The number seven, so the scholium on Plato Alcibiades I 121E (= TMMM 2.54) tells us, was considered “proper” (οἰκεῖον) to Mithras.
  • Celsus, ap. Origen, Contra Celsum 6.21-22. The ‘Mithraic ladder’ passage in 6.22 runs thus: Τοιόνδε τὸ σύμβολον· κλῖμαξ ἑπτάπυλος, ἐπὶ δ’ αὐτῇ πύλη ὀγδόη. Ἡ πρώτη τῶν πυλῶν μολίβδου, ἡ δευτέρα κασσιτέρου, ἡ τρίτη χαλκοῦ, ἡ τετάρτη σιδήρου, ἡ πέμπτη κεραστοῦ νομίσματος, ἡ ἕκτη ἀργύρου, χρυσοῦ δὲ ἡ ἑβδόμη. Τὴν πρώτην τίθενται Κρόνου, τῷ μολίβδῳ τεκμηριούμενοι τὴν βραδυτῆτα τοῦ ἀστέρος, τὴν δευτέραν Ἀφροδίτης, παραβάλλοντες αὐτῇ τὸ φαιδρόν τε καὶ μαλακὸν τοῦ κασσιτέρου, τὴν τρίτην τοῦ Διός, τὴν χαλκοβατῆ καὶ στεῤῥάν, τὴν τετάρτην Ἑρμοῦ, τλήμονα γὰρ ἔργων ἁπάντων καὶ χρηματιστὴν καὶ πολύκμητον εἶναι τόν τε σίδηρον καὶ τὸν Ἑρμῆν, τὴν πέμπτην Ἄρεος, τὴν ἐκ τοῦ κράματος ἀνώμαλόν τε καὶ ποικίλην, ἕκτην Σελήνης τὴν ἀργυρᾶν, ἑβδόμην Ἡλίου τὴν χρυσῆν, μιμούμενοι τὰς χρόας αὐτῶν.
  • Macrobius on the ‘Chaldæan’ planetary ordering: In somn. Scip. I.19.
  • Nonnos ‘Mythographos’: cited at Cumont 1896, 28: Τὸν Μίθραν ἄλλοι ἄλλως ἐνόμισαν. οἱ μὲν γὰρ τὸν ἥλιον, οἱ δὲ τὸν ἔφορον τοῦ πυρὸς, ἄλλοι δὲ εἰδικήν τινα δύναμιν. γίνονται δὲ τουτῷ τῷ Μίθρᾳ τινὲς τέλεται καὶ μάλιστα παρὰ Χαλδαίοις.
  • Porphyry, De antro nympharum 6: οὕτω καὶ Πέρσαι τὴν εἰς κάτω κάθοδον τῶν ψυχῶν καὶ πάλιν ἔξοδον μυσταγωγοῦντες τελοῦσι τὸν μύστην, ἐπονομάσαντες σπήλαιον <τὸν> τόπον.


  • Jaime Alvar. Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2008. We cite p. 125.
  • Beck 2006. We cite page 31 at the beginning of the episode. See pp. 30-39 for a survey of attempts astrally to ‘decode’ the tauroctony .
  • Idem argues for identifying Mithras with the Sun in Leo: R. L. Beck. In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony. In John Hinnels, editor, Studies in Mithraism: Papers Associated with the Mithraic Panel at the XVIth Congress of the IAHR, Rome 1990, page 29–50. Storia delle Religioni, Rome, 1994 (following A. J. Rutgers. Rational Interpretation of the Ritual of Mithra, and of Various Other Cults. In Anamnesis: Gedenkboek A. E. Leemans, pages 303–15. Gent, 1970).
  • Beck 1988, see below.
  • W. Burkert. Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987, we cite p. 75.
  • Manfred Clauss. The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000, we cite p. xx.
  • Franz Cumont: the astronomical/astrological components are late and superficial:  Les mystères de Mithra. Paris, 1902, 30-31: ‘The basal layer of this religion, its lower and primordial stratum, is the faith of ancient Iran, from which it took its origin. Above this Mazdean substratum was deposited in Babylon a thick sediment of Semitic doctrines, and afterwards the local beliefs of Asia Minor added to it their alluvial deposits. Finally, a luxuriant vegetation of Hellenic ideas burst forth from this fertile soil and partly concealed from view its true original nature.’
  • R. Merkelbach. Mithras. Anton Hain, Königstein, 1984.
  • K.-G. Sandelin. Mithras = Auriga? Arctos, Acta Philologica Fennica, 22:133–35, 1988.
  • M.P. Speidel. Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God. Brill, Leiden, 1980.
  • R. Turcan. Mithras Platonicus: Recherches sur l’hellénisation philosophique de Mithra. Number 47 in EPRO. Brill, Leiden, 1975, pp. 44-61 for Celsus. We cite p. 46: ‘Dans les mysteres d’Isis ou de Mithra, comme dans ceux de Samothrace ou d’Eleusis, seule importe au Celse du Discours veridi- que l’interpretatio Platonica.’
  • David Ulansey. The Mithraic Mysteries. Scientific American, 261:130–35, Dec. 1989a.
  • Idem. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1989b.

Recommended Reading:

  • R. L. Beck. The Rise and Fall of the Astral Identifications of the Tauroctonous Mithras. In R.L. Beck, editor, Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays, Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion, pages 235–49. Ashgate, Aldershot/Burlington, VT, 2004.
  • Idem. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  • Idem. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, volume 109 of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Brill, Leiden, 1988.
  • F.H. Colson. The Week: An Essay on the Origin and Development of the Seven-Day Cycle. Cambridge, 1926.
  • Radcliffe G. Edmonds. Did the Mithraists Inhale? – A Technique for Theurgic Ascent in the Mithras Liturgy, the Chaldaean Oracles, and some Mithraic Frescoes. Ancient World, 32(1):10, 2001.
  • Dragana Mladenović. Astral Path to Soul Salvation in Late Antiquity? The Orientation of Two Late Roman Imperial Mausolea from Eastern Serbia. American Journal of Archaeology, 113(1):81–97, Jan. 2009.
  • R. Pettazzoni. The Monstrous Figure of Time in Mithraism. In Essays in the History of Religions, Numen Book Series, pages 180–92. Brill, Leiden, 1967.



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