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Christmas - Persian Roots of Christian Traditions Rate Topic: -----

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Posted 18 December 2009 - 09:08 PM

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Mitra is killing a bull

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By Ramona Shashaani
December 23, 1999
The Iranian

The following was posted on the ruminations maling list. Thanks to Shahrzad Irani for forwarding it.


A while ago, I was invited to give a talk at a Christmas party about the Persian tradition of celebrating the winter solstice on December 21st. In order to speak intelligently to a spiritually and psychologically keen audience, I set out to research the subject. I was scrambling to find resource material when my day was saved by our list co-moderator, Peter Bridge, who provided me with more references than I had hoped to find in my attempt to unravel the historical, symbolic and mythic bases behind the Persian people's celebration of this festive occasion.

What I did not expect to find, however, was a fascinating history of how Christmas may have its origins in the ancient Persian Mithraic tradition of worshipping Mithra or Mehr, the sun-god or god of love. With the approaching winter solstice, I thought it might be appropriate share this history with you.

While Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, the Persians are getting ready to tribute one of their most festive celebrations on Dec. 21st, the eve of winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year. In Iran this night is called SHAB-E YALDAA, also known as SHAB-E CHELLEH, which refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun.

In the east more than in the west, lifestyles have often remained more in tune with nature. This integration of natural rhythms into life cycles is especially true in ancient Persia and has survived the ages. YALDAA, like other major Persian celebrations, is focused on the changing of the seasons. It is as ancient as the time that people organized their lives around the precession of equinoxes.

The most eminent festive affair is NOROOZ, the Iranian new year, which occurs with the spring equinox, around March 21st. It is no wonder that astrology was first inaugurated in ancient Babylonia, a part of the Persian Empire. Yet YALDAA is chiefly related to MEHR YAZAT; it is the night of the birth of the unconquerable sun, Mehr or Mithra, meaning love and sun, and has been celebrated by the followers of Mithraism as early as 5000 B.C.

Is it a mere coincidence that Christmas and YALDAA are so close in time and similar in nature? I suggest that the origins of Christmas may be from ancient Persia.

According to the Bible, the man Jesus Christ was actually born on January 6, and the celebration of his birthday on December 25th, may in fact be born out of the Persian Mithraic influence. In the old Persian mythology, Mitra (Mithra, Mehr), the God of love, friendship, and light, the sun-god, was miraculously born from a rock by a river or stream on this longest night of the year.

In his fifth volume of the collected works, Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who broke away from Freud, has extensively discussed the influence of Mithraism on Christianity and has portrayed its images and symbols. He quotes Franz Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithra, p. 149, modified:

"Perhaps no other religion has ever offered to its votaries, in so high a degree as Mithraism, opportunities for prayer and motives for veneration. When the initiate betook himself in the evening to the sacred grotto concealed in the solitude of the forest, at every step new sensations awakened in his heart some mystical emotion. The stars that shone in the sky, the wind that whispered in the foliage, the spring or brook that hastened murmuring to the valley, even the earth which he trod under his feet, were in his eyes divine, and all surrounding nature evoked in him a worshipful fear of the infinite forces that swayed the universe (para. 109)."

In praise of the Mithraic sun-god, Jung states:

"The sun. . . is the truly "rational"image of God, whether we adopt the standpoint of the primitive savage or of modern science. In either case Father-God from whom all living things draw life; he is the fructifier and the creator, the source of energy into our world. The discord into which the human soul has fallen can be harmoniously resolved through the sun as a natural object which knows no inner conflict . . . It shines equally on the just and the unjust, and allows useful creatures to flourish as well as the harmful. Therefore the sun is perfectly suited to represent the visible God of this world, i.e., the creative power of our own soul, which we call libido, and whose nature it is to bring forth the useful and the harmful, the good and the bad. That this comparison is not just a matter of words can be seen from the teachings of the mystics: when they descend into the depths of their own being, they find "in their heart" the image of the sun, they find their own life-force which they call the "sun" for a legitimate and, I would say, a physical reason, because our source of energy and life actually is the sun. Our physiological life, regarded as an energy process, is entirely solar (para. 176)."

With the advent of regional battles between ancient Persians and Romans, a majority of the Roman soldiers who lamented their brutish ways, came to find reverence for the Mithraic devotion to nature and beauty. They exalted Mithra's illustrating of slaying the bull, representing sacrifice of the animal instinct in order to find the path to the divine. Soon, Mithraism spread its wings from Persia to the ancient-civilized world in Rome and many European countries. Consequently, in Europe as in Persia, the 21st of December was celebrated as Mithra's birthday.

Early Christians took this very ancient Persian celebration to Mithra, the sun- god, and linked it to Christ's birthday. But in the 4th century A.D., because of some errors in counting the leap year, the birthday of Mithra shifted to 25th of December and was established as such.

Hence, in 274 CE, the Roman emperor Aurelia declared December 25th as he birthday of the unconquered sun ("natAlis solis invicti"), which at the winter solstice begins to show an increase of light; he declared this day as a day of festivities. Later, the church of Rome established the commemoration of the birthday of Christ, the "sun of righteousness," on this same date. Until that time the birthday of Jesus Christ was celebrated on January 6th. But the religion of most of the Romans and many people of the European continent was still Mithraism. Pope Leo in the fourth century, after almost destroying the temple of Mithra in 376 A.D., in his campaign against Mithraism -- and in the good old Christian tradition, "If you can't claim it, imitate it" -- proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th, a date, by the way, which is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Armenians.

It is also noteworthy that Epiphany, or the "Feast of the Three Holy Kings" on January 6, commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the Magi. The Magi, who were known astrologers, saw a newborn bright star in the sky and predicted the birth of Christ. From the religious city of Qum in Iran, they set out to Jerusalem to greet the infant Christ as the newly born king of the Jews, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Originally, the Magi had been disciples of Zoroaster, who spread his new religion in Persia long after Mithra. Their name is the Latinized form of Magoi [Herodotus I, 101]. They were a priestly caste during the Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanian periods in ancient Persia. Later, parts of the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians, including the ritualistic sections of the Vendidad, probably derive from them. As a sacred and powerful caste, Zoroastrians ruled the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.; they continued to have a dominating religious influence on the subsequent kings of Persia and were still powerful at the time of the birth of Christ.

The connection of the Magi with astrology and their Persian origin is all that is known of the Magi ("wise men" in most English Bibles, "astrologers" in the new English Bible). In early Christian art the Magi usually wear Persian clothes (e.g., the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, 2nd century). In the Syriac tradition those names are Persian and they are connected with Persian religious history.

Zoroastrians, after refining and discarding some of the mythical and "heretical" aspects of Mithraism, retained YALDAA, a Soryani word meaning "the birth'" The ceremony is traced to the historical combat myth between the good forces of light against the evil forces of darkness. This longest night with evil as its zenith is considered ill-fated by this ancient Persian religion. From this day onward, the good forces of light triumph as the days grow longer and give more light.

This celebration comes on the eve of the Persian month of "DAY," the first month of winter, also the name of the pre-Zoroastrian creator god, more commonly known as 'Saturn" in the west. In Persia, DAY was praised and revered as the most powerful God of creation and light, from which we have the English word "day" (the period of light in 24 hours). In the Roman world, the Saturnalia, from December 17 through December 24, became a time of merrymaking and exchange of presents, in honor of the Roman God Saturn.

Ancient Zoroastrians believed that AHURA MAZDA (the good God) created light, day and sunshine as representations of order and "the ahurAic," or good. The day is a time of work, harvest and productivity. They also believed that AHRIMAN (an equally powerful, but evil god) created "the night', a time of darkness, cold, hidden secrets and wild predators. Observing the cyclical changes in the length of days and nights, engendered a belief that light and darkness, or day and night are in continuous battle. The triumphant light brought about longer days, whereas the victory of darkness produced longer nights. It was believed that the greatest battle between the forces of good and evil was fought on SHAB-E YALDAA, the night before winter solstice. Since the first night of winter is the longest and from that night onwards, the days get longer while the warmth and light of the sun increases, the night of the winter solstice was recognized and celebrated as the time of the sun's birth or rebirth by Aryan tribes in Iran, India and Europe.

Fires and lights, symbols of AHURA MAZDA, warmth and lasting life have always been associated with the winter festival. To remain safe from AHRIMAN'S harms, in the evening of SHAB-E YALDAA, bonfires are lit outside, while inside family and friends gather in a nightlong vigil around the KORSEE, a low, square table covered with a thick quilt overhanging on all sides. A brazier with hot coals is placed under the table, in the center. All night, families and friends sit on large cushions on the ground around the KORSEE with the quilt over their laps. They arrange a special sacred space wherein the elders tell stories and fairytales or read poetry to the younger generations. The oldest member of the family says prayers, asks sun "yazat" to bless them, thanks God for the previous year's crops, and prays for the prosperity of next year's harvest. Then with a sharp knife, he or she cuts through a thick yogurt or watermelon, giving everyone a share. The cutting symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain from the family.

Snacks are passed around throughout the night. It is virtually obligatory to eat pomegranates with angelica powder (GOLPAR) and AJEEL-E SHAB-E YALDAA, a tasty mixture of nuts and dried fruits as a symbol for solving problems, translated as "opening one's problems" or "knots." Eating nuts is said to keep illness at bay until the spring. The fruits are meant to bring more fruits and prosperity in the coming spring and onwards. More substantial fare for the night's feast include eggplant stew with plain saffron-flavored rice; or rice with chicken or fish; thick yogurt, as well as sweets made with carrots and saffron (HALVAA-E HAVEEJ).

The foods themselves symbolize the balance of the seasons; watermelons and yogurt are eaten as a remedy for the heat of the summer, since these fruits are considered cold or SARDEE; while HALVAA, the saffron and carrot sweets, is meant to overcome the cold temperatures of winter since they are considered hot or GARMEE. Throughout the night of festivities, the family keeps the fires burning and the lights glowing to "help" the sun in its battle against darkness.

Ancient Persians also decorated an evergreen tree called SARVE. The SARVE or "Rocket Juniper" - also known as the cypress tree, being straight, upright and resistant to the cold weather, was known as a symbol of enduring hardship, thus appropriate for celebrating Mithra. The younger ones had their "wishes" symbolically wrapped in colorful silk cloth and hung them on the tree along with lots of offerings for Mithra in the hopes that he would answer their prayers.

Again in the same tradition, Luther, the famous German reformer, in mid 16th century, having learned of the YALDAA SARVE, introduced the Christmas tree to the Germans. As cypress trees were not widespread in Germany, as indeed in most of Europe, the chosen tree became a variety of pine which was abundant in Europe.

In summary, it is not just Mithra's birth time which entered Christianity. There are many similarities between the Mithraic and Christian traditions. Nowadays all Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus, light fireplaces and candles, decorate trees with lights, stay up all night, sing and dance, eat special foods, pay visits, and celebrate this festive occasion with family and friends.

Christmas and YALDAA are just another example of the many common beliefs, customs, symbols, stories and myths that bind people of different nations and religions across the globe. Let us honor these manifestations of the collective unconscious, so that we may be the keepers of light, love, friendship and peace among the peoples of the world. Enjoy your Christmas holidays, in its true spirit of love, gratitude, compassion, giving and forgiving, knowing that it may have its origins in an ancient tradition which, as Carl Jung says, links us back to "the creative power of our own soul." As our teacher Rumi suggests, "Open up your hidden eyes and return to the root of the root of your own Self."


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Mithras, Mithra, Mitra
Saturnalia may have been responsible for the pageantry of our midwinter festival, but it's Mithraism [www.uvm.edu/~classics/life/holiday.html] that seems to have inspired certain symbolic religious elements of Christmas. Mithraism arose in the Mediterranean world at the same time as Christianity, either imported from Iran, as Franz Cumont believed, or as a new religion which borrowed the name Mithras from the Persians, as the Congress of Mithraic Studies suggested in 1971.

Mithraism radiated from India where there is evidence of its practice from 1400 B.C. Mitra was part of the Hindu pantheon and Mithra was a minor Zooroastrian deity, the god of the airy light between heaven and earth. He was also a military general in Chinese mythology.

The soldiers' god, even in Rome (although the faith was embraced by male emperors, farmers, bureaucrats, merchants, and slaves, as well as soldiers), demanded a high standard of behavior, “temperance, self-control, and compassion -- even in victory”. Such virtues were sought by Christian, too. Tertullian chides his fellow Christians for unbecoming behavior:

“Are you not ashamed, my fellow soldiers of Christ, that you will be condemned, not by Christ, but by some soldier of Mithras?”

The comparison of Mithraists and Christians is not coincidental. December 25 was Mithras' birthday before it was Jesus'. The Online Mithraic Faith Newsletter [no longer available] says:

“Since earliest history, the Sun has been celebrated with rituals by many cultures when it began it's journey into dominance after it's apparent weakness during winter. The origin of these rites, Mithrasists believe, is this proclamation at the dawn of human history by Mithras commanding His followers to observe such rites on that day to celebrate the birth of Mithras, the Invincible Sun.”

But the actual choice of December 25 for Christmas was made under the Emperor Aurelian because this was the date of the Winter Solstice and was the day devotees of Mithras celebrated the dies natalis solis invicti 'birthday of the invincible sun'.

Mithraism, like Christianity, offers salvation to its adherents. Mithras was born into the world to save humanity from evil. Both figures ascended in human form, Mithras to wield the sun chariot, Christ to Heaven. The following summarizes the aspects of Mithraism that are also found in Christianity.

“Mithras, the sun-god, was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and worshipped on Sunday, the day of the conquering sun. He was a savior-god who rivaled Jesus in popularity. He died and was resurrected in order to become a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light, and the leader of the forces of righteousness against the dark forces of the god evil.”



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Mithraism is the ancient Roman mystery cult of the god Mithras. Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the early Roman empire, perhaps during the late first century of the Common Era (hereafter CE), and flourished from the second through the fourth centuries CE. While it is fairly certain that Romans encountered worship of the deity Mithras as part of Zoroastrianism in the eastern provinces of the empire, particularly in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey), the exact origins of cult practices in the Roman cult of Mithras remain controversial (see below). The evidence for this cult is mostly archaeological, consisting of the remains of mithraic temples, dedicatory inscriptions, and iconographic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult in stone sculpture, sculpted stone relief, wall painting, and mosaic. There is very little literary evidence pertaining to the cult.

The Deity: Mitra, Mithra, Mithras

Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian god Mitra, or Mithra, as he was called by the Persians. Mitra is part of the Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is one of several yazatas (minor deities) under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon. Mithra is the god of the airy light between heaven and earth, but he is also associated with the light of the sun, and with contracts and mediation. Neither in Hinduism nor in Zoroastrianism did Mitra/Mithra have his own cult. Mitra is mentioned in the Hindu Vedas, while Mithra is is the subject of Yashts (hymns) in the Zoroastrian Avesta, a text compiled during the Sassanian period (224-640 CE) to preserve a much older oral tradition.

Cumont himself recognized possible flaws in his theory. The most obvious is that there is little evidence for a Zoroastrian cult of Mithra (Cumont 1956), and certainly none that suggests that Zoroastrian worship of Mithra used the liturgy or the well-devoloped iconography found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Moreover, few monuments from the Roman cult have been recovered from the very provinces which are thought to have inspired worship of Mithras (namely the provinces of Asia Minor). Finally, Cumont was aware that the earliest datable evidence for the cult of Mithras came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the province of Upper Pannonia on the Danube River (modern Hungary). Indeed, the largest quantity of evidence for mithraic worship comes from the western half of the empire, particularly from the provinces of the Danube River frontier and from Rome and her port city, Ostia, in Italy. To explain this phenomenon, Cumont proposed that soldiers stationed in western provinces and transferred to eastern provinces for short periods of time learned of the deity Mithra and began to worship and dedicate monuments to a god they called Mithras when they returned to their customary garrison. It is true that soldiers from the Roman legion XV Apollinaris stationed at Carnuntum in the first century CE were called to the East in 63 CE to help fight in a campaign against the Parthians and further to help quell the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem from 66-70 CE. Members of the legion made mithraic dedications back in Carnuntum after their return from these campaigns, possibly as early as 71 or 72 CE. Once these Roman soldiers and the camp-followers of the legions, who included merchants, slaves, and freedmen, started to worship Mithras, argued Cumont, their further movements around the empire served to spread the cult to other areas.

Cumont's scholarship was so influential that it founded mithraic studies as an area of inquiry in its own right. Cumont's student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, was a scholar equally as prolific as his mentor. Among Vermaseren's greatest contributions was an up-dated English language catalogue of mithraic monuments (Vermaseren 1956, 1960).

Structure and Liturgy of the Roman mystery cult of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a "mystery" cult, which is to say that its members kept the the liturgy and activities of the cult secret, and more importantly, that they had to participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the cult. As a result, there is no surviving central text of Mithraism analogous to the Christian Bible, and there is no intelligible text which describes the liturgy. Whether such texts ever existed is unknown, but doubtful. 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 about one 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 cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (see below) and also to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.

We surmise from the structure of mithraea and from paintings which are preserved in certain mithraea that mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. The details of the liturgy are uncertain, but it is worth noting that most mithraea have room for only thirty to forty members, and only a few are so large that a bull could actually be sacrificed inside.

The structure of the cult was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a tutelary 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 (the Sun's courier, under Sol, 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.

Two aspects of mithraic initiation offer important insight into the cult. First, it was possible for a mithraic initiate to be a member of more than one cult, and second, women were not permitted to become members. These facts are critical to understanding the cult of Mithraism in relation to other Roman cults, to official Roman state religion, and to the cult of Christianity (see below).

Mithraic Iconography

Mithraic monuments have a rich and relatively coherent iconography, chronologically and geographically speaking. In each mithraic temple there was a central scene showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (often called a tauroctony). Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He faces the viewer while half-straddling the back of a bull, yanks the bull's head back by its nostrils with his left hand, and plunges a dagger into the bull's thoat with his right. 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. On the viewer's left stands a diminutive male figure named Cautes, wearing the same garb as Mithras and 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 another diminutive male figure, Cautopates, who is also clad as Mithras is and 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.

For a long time the meaning of the bull-sacrificing scene and its associated figures was unclear, but a long series of studies beginning with one by K. B. Stark in 1869 and culminating in studies by Roger Beck (1984 and 1988), David Ulansey (1989) and Noel Swerdlow (1991) has revealed a comprehensible astrological symbolism. Each figure and element in the scene correlates to specific constellations, to the seven planets recognized by the ancient Romans, and to the position of these in relation to the celestial equator and the ecliptic, particularly at the time of the equinoxes and the solstices.

The bull-sacrificing scene is usually carved in stone relief or painted on stone and placed in mithraea in a visible location. 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.

The Popularity of Mithraism Geographically, Socially, and Chronologically

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was most popular among the 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 support Cumont's assertion that Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces (see above).

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.

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.

Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE, but the common belief that Mithraism was the prime competitor of Christianity, promulgated by Ernst Renan (Renan 1882 579), is blatantly false. Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was, as mentioned above, only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. The major competitor to Christianity was thus not Mithraism but the combined group of imported cults and official Roman cults subsumed under the rubric "paganism." Finally, part of Renan's claim rested on an equally common, but almost equally mistaken, belief that Mithraism was officially accepted because it had Roman emperors among its adherents (Nero, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and the Tetrarchs are most commonly cited). Close examination of the evidence for the participation of emperors reveals that some comes from literary sources of dubious quality and that the rest is rather circumstantial. The cult of Magna Mater, the first imported cult to arrive in Rome (204 BCE) was the only one ever officially recognized as a Roman cult. The others, including Mithraism, were never officially accepted, and some, particularly the Egyptian cult of Isis, were periodically outlawed and their adherents persecuted.

Scholarly Debate

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.

Sources

Beck, R. "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der r&oumlmischen Welt, II.17.4., 1984.

Beck, R. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders of the Mysteries of Mithras (Etudes pr&eacuteliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romain. Vol. 9). Leiden, 1988.

Bianchi, U., ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.

Bianchi, U. and Vermaseren, M. J., eds. La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'impero romano. Leiden, 1982.

Boyce, M. and Grenet, F. A History of Zoroastrianism, III: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule. Leiden, 1991.

Clauss, M. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. Munich, 1990.

Coarelli, F. "Topografia Mitriaca di Roma." In U. Bianchi, ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.

Cumont, F. Textes et monuments figur&eacutes relatifs aux myst&egraveres de Mithra. 2 vols. Brussels, 1896, 1899.

Cumont, F. The Mysteries of Mithra. Trans. T. J. McCormack. London, 1903, reprint New York, 1956.

Hinnells, J., ed. Mithraic Studies. 2 vols. Manchester, 1975.

Merkelbach, R. Mithras. K&oumlnigstein, 1984.

Renan, E. Marc-Aur&egravele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882.

Stark, K. B. "Die Mithrasstein von Dormagen," Jahrb&uumlcher des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden im Rheinlande 46 (1869): 1-25.

Swerdlow, N. "Review Article: On the Cosmical Mysteries of Mithras," Classical Philology 86 (1991): 48-63.

Turcan, R. Mithras Platonicus. Leiden, 1975.

Ulansey, D. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. New York and Oxford, 1989.

Vermaseren, M. J. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis mithriacae. 2 vols. The Hague, 1956, 1960.

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Posted 18 December 2009 - 09:13 PM

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SHAB-E YALDA

The Eve of the Birth of Mithra, the Sun God

'Shab-e Yalda', celebrated on 21 December, is an ancient Iranian celebration and has great significance in the Iranian calendar. It is the eve of the birth of Mithra, the Sun God, who symbolised light, goodness and strength on earth. Shab-e Yalda is a time of joy.

Yalda, a Syric word imported into the Persian language by Syric Christians means birth (tavalod and meelaad are from the same origin). It is a relatively recent arrival and refereed to the "Shab e Cheleh" festival, a celebration of Winter solstice on December 21st. Yalda, forty days before the next major Persian festival "Jashn e Sadeh", has been celebrated in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God – Mithra cult) are amongst the best known in the Western world. Mithra-worshippers used the term 'yalda' specifically with reference to the birth of Mithra. In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the Sun. For instance, four thousand years ago the Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.

The Cult of the Sun was first introduced to Aryanam-Vaej thousands of years ago by migrant Aryans. Mithra (related with the Hindu deity Mitra), the Sun God remained a potent symbol of worship throughout the following centuries. Centuries later, during the Achaemenid era, Mithra became a principal deity, equal in rank to Ahura Mazda (the god of all goodness) and Anahita (goddess of water and fertility).

In Sasanian times, Zoroastrianism became Iran's official religion, but Mithra's importance remained undiminished. This is evident from the bas-reliefs as Naqsh-e Rustam and Tagh-e Bustan. At Naqsh-e Rustam, Anahita bestows the royal diadem upon Nasri, the Sasanian King. At the investiture of Ardeshir I, Ahura Mazda bestows this diadem to the new King. At Tagh-e Bustan too, Ahura Mazda is again conferring the royal diadem upon Ardeshir II. Mithra is always present as a witness to these ceremonies.

Over the centuries Mithraism spread to Greece and Ancient Rome via Asia Minor, gaining popularity within the ranks of the Roman army. In the 4th century AD as a result of errors made in calculating leap years and dates, the birthday of Mithra was transferred to 25 December. Until then Christ's birthday had been celebrated on 6 January by all branches of the Christian Church. But with the cult of Mithra still popular in Roman Europe, the Christian Church adopted many of the Mithraic rituals and proclaimed 25 December as the official birthday of Christ. Today the Armenian and Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to celebrate 6 January as Christ's birthday.

It was said that Mithra was born out of the light that came from within the Alborz mountains. Ancient Iranians would gather in caves along the mountain range throughout the night to witness this miracle together at dawn. They were known as 'Yar-e Ghar' (Cave Mates). In Iran today, despite of the advent of Islam and Muslim rituals, Shab-e Yalda is still celebrated widely. It is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry (especially Hafiz) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red colour in these fruits symbolises the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life, invoking the splendour of Mithra.

Because Shab-e Yalda is the longest and darkest night, it has come to symbolise many things in Persian poetry; separation from a loved one, loneliness and waiting. After Shab-e Yalda a transformation takes place - the waiting is over, light shines and goodness prevails.


' The sight of you each morning is a New Year Any night of your departure is the eve of Yalda' (Sa'adi)

'With all my pains, there is still the hope of recovery Like the eve of Yalda, there will finally be an end' (Sa'adi)


Another version

Quote

Yalda
Significance of winter solstice in Persian culture

By Massoume Price
December 8, 1999
The Iranian

Yalda, a Syric word imported into the Persian language by Syric Christians means birth (tavalod and meelaad are from the same origin). It is a relatively recent arrival and refereed to the "Shab e Cheleh" festival, a celebration of Winter solstice on December 21st. Yalda, forty days before the next major Persian festival "Jashn e Sadeh", has been celebrated in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God – Mithra cult) are amongst the best known in the Western world.

In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the Sun. For instance, four thousand years ago the Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.

The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion. The last day of the Persian month of "Azar" is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Ahriman are assumed to be at their peak. While the next day, the first day of the month of "Day" known as "Khoram rooz" or "Khore rooz" (the day of the sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of the sun over darkness. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of "Daygan" dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month of "Day".

Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of Ahriman. There would be feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of the sun that was essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Eyzad responsible for protecting "the light of the early morning", known as "Havangah". It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people's wishes.

One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted until the Sassanid period, and is mentioned by Biruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals. Its origin goes back to the Babylonian new year celebration. These people believed the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation they had a festival and all roles were reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a day and eventually order was restored and succeeded at the end of the festival.

The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival dedicated to the ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated their homes with greenery. Following the Persian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels would be forgotten and wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to Sol Invictus ("the invincible sun"). Originally a Syrian deity, this cult was imported by Emperor Heliogabalus into Rome and Sol was made god of the state. With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration became the most important Christian festival. In the third century various dates, from December to April, were celebrated by Christians as Christmas. January 6 was the most favored day because it was thought to be Jesus's Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church this continues to be the day to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian church agreed to that date, which coincided, with the Winter solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed today.

It is not clear when and how the world "Yalda" entered the Persian language. The massive persecution of early Christians in Rome brought many Christian refugees into the Sassanid Empire and it is very likely that these Christians introduced and popularized "Yalda" in Iran. Gradually "Shab e Yalda" and "Shab e Cheleh" became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably. With the conquest of Islam the religious significance of the ancient Persian festivals was lost. Today "Shab e Cheleh" is merely a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts to celebrate and pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops.

Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to "Shab e Cheleh", also celebrate the festival of "Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Illanout is very similar to the Shab e Cheleh celebration. Candles are lit and all varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits are served. Special meals are prepared and prayers are performed. There are also very similar festivals in many parts of Southern Russia that are identical to "Shab e Cheleh" with local variations. Sweet breads are baked in the shape of humans and animals. Bon fires are made and dances resemble crop harvesting. Comparison and detailed studies of all these celebrations no doubt will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and ancient festival, where merriment was the main theme of the festival. Happy Shab e Cheleh.


Some literatures about the Persian-Iranic roots of Christmas

The Christmas Book
http://books.google....0Persia&f=false
- Christmas in the olden time
- It´s Customs and Origine

The gospel of Jesus: in search of his original teachings, by John Davidson
http://books.google....thraism&f=false

Toward the origins of Christmas, by Susan K. Roll
http://books.google....thraism&f=false

1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies 1937, by Alfred Carl Hottes
http://books.google....thraism&f=false

Christ and other masters: an historical inquiry into some of the ...
http://books.google....thraism&f=false
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Posted 23 December 2009 - 02:15 PM

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah or happy Kwanzaa? That seems to be the question every year around this time. But this year, let us celebrate it for what it really is. It was originally the Yule or Yalda festival meant to commemorate the birth of the Sun God Mithra.

Perhaps it had something to do with the Ice Age, which bedeviled ancient Nature Worshippers for so long that the day following the Winter Solstice, when days start getting longer, the day when light is born again, that day, the 23rd of December, was the happiest day of the year for our freezing pagan ancestors and celebrated accordingly.

The Yalda festival was a Mithraic celebration, which finds its origins among the earliest Iranians. But in 53 BCE, when Roman legions, unable to conquer Parthian Mithraists, adopted Mithra the "Unconquered Sun" for themselves, the Yule Tide became an official celebration of the Roman Empire.

Many of the original pagan symbols survive in what has come to be known as Christmas such as: holly, ivy, mistletoe, Yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, Santa Claus, magical reindeer, etc..

Most Christians know that December 25th is not the actual date of Jesus' birth. But to call it "Christmas" stretches the limits of irony as early Christians, even some today, did their best to abolish it. Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian, said "Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them."

In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647. Some contemporary Christian faith groups do not celebrate Christmas to this day including the Worldwide Church of God (before its recent conversion to Evangelical Christianity) and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In fact, I suspect that the last pagan holdouts supported the switch to "Christmas" in an effort to save their celebration from being eradicated entirely by the Holy Roman Empire.

In a compromise, the Catholic Church, in the beginning of the 4th century CE, agreed to celebrate the birthday of Yeshua of Nazareth (later known as Jesus Christ) on December 25th, two days removed from its original Yule date. Eastern churches followed suit and began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. Ireland started in the 5th century. The church in Jerusalem started in the 7th century. Austria, England and Switzerland in the 8th. Slavic lands in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Regardless of its origins, it's a great time to wish friends and family joy, prosperity and good health for the coming year.
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