CHAPTERS OF MASONIC HISTORY
BY BRO. H. L. HAYWOOD
EDITOR THE BUILDER
THE BUILDER MAY 1923
PART III - MITHRAISM: FREEMASONRY AND THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES
THE THEORY that modern Freemasonry is m some sense a direct
descendant from the ancient Mysteries has held a peculiar
attraction for Masonic writers this long time, and the end is not
yet, for the world is rife with men who argue about the matter up
and down endless pages of print. It is a most difficult subject to
write about, so that the more one learns about it the less he is
inclined to ventilate any opinions of his own. The subject covers
so much ground and in such tangled jungles that almost any gra nd
generalization is pretty sure to be either wrong or useless. Even
Gould, who is usually one of the soundest and carefullest of
generalizers, gets pretty badly mixed up on the subject.
For present purposes it has seemed to me wise to attention to one
only of the Mysteries, letting it stand as a type of the rest, and
I have chosen for that purpose MITHRAISM, one of the greatest and
one of most interesting, as well as one possessing as many
parallelisms with Freemasonry as any of the others.
I - HOW MITHRA CAME TO BE A FIRST-CLASS GOD
Way back in the beginning of things, so we may learn from the
Avesta, Mithra was the young god of the sky lights that appeared
just before sunrise and lingered after the sun had set. To him was
attributed patronship of the virtues of truth, life-giving, and
youthful strength and joy. Such qualities attracted many
worshippers in whose eyes Mithra grew from more to more until
finally he became a great god in his own right and almost equal to
the sun god himself. "Youth will be served," even a youthful god;
and Zoroastrianism, which began by giving Mithra a very subordinate
place, came at last to exalt him to the right hand of the awful
Ormuzd, who had rolled up within himself all the attributes of all
When the Persians conquered the Babylonians, who worshipped the
stars in a most thoroughgoing manner, Mithra got himself placed at
the very center of star worshipping cults, and won such strength
for himself that when the Persian Empire went to pieces and
everything fell into the melting pot with it, Mithra was able to
hold his own identity, and emerged from the struggle at the head of
a religion of his own. He was a young god full of vigour and
overflowing with spirits, capable of teaching his followers th e
arts of victory, and such things appealed mightily to the bellicose
Iranian tribesmen who never ceased to worship him in one form or
another until they became so soundly converted to Mohammedanism
centuries afterwards. Even then they did not abandon him
altogether but after the inevitable manner of converts rebuilt him
into Allah and into Mohammed, so that even today one will find
pieces of Mithra scattered about here and there in what the Mo
hammedans call their theology.
After the collapse of the Persian Empire, Phrygia, where so many
religions were manufactured at one time or another, took Mithra up
and built a cult about him. They gave him his Phrygian cap which
one always sees on his statues, and they incorporated in his rites
the use of the dreadful "taurobolium," which was a baptism in the
blood of a healthy young bull. In the course of time this gory
ceremony became the very center and climax of the Mithraic ritual,
and made a profound impression on the hordes of po or slaves and
ignorant men who flocked into the mithrea, as the Mithraic houses
of worship were called.
Mithra was never able to make his way into Greece (the same thing
could be said of Egypt, where the competition among religions was
very severe) but it happened that he borrowed something from Greek
art. Some unknown Greek sculptor, one of the shining geniuses of
his nation, made a statue of Mithra that served ever afterwards as
the orthodox likeness of the god, who was depicted as a youth of
overflowing vitality, his mantle thrown back, a Phrygian cap on his
head, and slaying a bull. For hundreds of year s this statue was
to all devout Mithraists what the crucifix now is to Roman
Catholics. This likeness did much to open Mithra's path toward the
west, for until this his images had been hideous in the distorted
and repellant manner so characteristic of Oriental religious
sculpture. The Oriental people, among whom Mithra was born, were
always capable of gloomy grandeur and of religious terror, but of
beauty they had scarcely a touch; it remained for the Greeks to
recommend Mithra to men of good taste.
After the Macedonian conquests, so it is believed, the cult of
Mithra became crystallized; it got its orthodox theology, its
church system, its philosophy, its dramas and rites, its picture of
the universe and of the grand cataclysmic end of all things in a
terrific day of judgment. Many things had been built into it.
There were exciting ceremonies for the multitudes; much mysticism
for the devout; a great machinery of salvation for the timid; a
program of militant activity for men of valour; and a lofty ethic
for the superior classes. Mithraism had a history, traditions,
sacred books, and a vast momentum from the worship of millions and
millions among remote and scattered tribes. Thus accoutered and
equipped, the young god and his religion were prepared to enter the
more complex and sophisticated world known as the Roman Empire.
II - HOW MITHRA FOUND HIS WAY TO ROME
When Mithridates Eupator - he who hated the Romans with a virulency
like that of Hannibal, and who waged war on them three or four
times - was utterly destroyed in 66 B.C. and his kingdom of Pontus
was given over to the dogs, the scattered fragments of his armies
took refuge among the outlaws and pirates of Cilicia and carried
with them everywhere the rites and doctrines of Mithraism.
Afterwards the soldiers of the Republic of Tarsus, which these
outlaws organized, went pillaging and fighting all round the
Mediterranean, and carried the cult with them everywhere. It was
in this unpromising manner that Mithra made his entrance into the
Roman world. The most ancient of all inscriptions is one made by a
freedman of the Flavians at about this time.
In the course of time Mithra won to his service a very different
and much more efficient army of missionaries. Syrian merchants
went back and forth across the Roman world like shuttles in a loom,
and carried the new cult with them wherever they went. Slaves and
freedmen became addicts and loyal supporters. Government
officials, especially those belonging to the lowlier ranks, set up
altars at every opportunity. But the greatest of all the
propagandists were the soldiers of the various Roman armies. Mit
hra, who was believed to love the sight of glittering swords and
flying banners, appealed irresistibly to soldiers, and they in turn
were as loyal to him as to any commander on the field. The time
came when almost every Roman camp possessed its mithreum.
Mithra began down next to the ground but the time came when he
gathered behind him the great ones of the earth. Antoninus Pius,
father-in-law of Marcus Aurelius, erected a Mithraic temple at
Ostia, seaport of the city of Rome. With the exception of Marcus
Aurelius and possibly one or two others all the pagan emperors
after Antaninus were devotees of the god, especially Julian, who
was more or less addle-pated and willing to take up with anything
to stave off the growing power of Christianity. The early C hurch
Fathers nicknamed Julian "The Apostate"; the slur was not
altogether just because the young man had never been a Christian
under his skin.
Why did all these great fellows, along with the philosophers and
literary men who obediently followed suit, take up the worship of a
foreign god, imported from amidst the much hated Syrians, when
there were so many other gods of home manufacture so close at hand?
Why did they take to a religion that had been made fashionable by
slaves and cutthroats? The answer is easy to discover. Mithra was
peculiarly fond of rulers and of the mighty of the earth. His
priests declared that the god himself stood at the r ight hand of
emperors both on and off the throne. It was these priests who
invented the good old doctrine of the divine right of kings. The
more Mithra was worshipped by the masses, the more complete was the
imperial control of those masses, therefore it was good business
policy for the emperors to give Mithra all the assistance they
could. There came a time when every Emperor was pictured by the
artists with a halo about his head; that halo had origin ally
belonged to Mithra. It represented the outstand ing splendour of
the young and vigorous sun. After the Roman emperors passed away
the popes and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church took up the
custom; they are still in the habit of showing their saints
Mithraism spread up and down the world with amazing rapidity. All
along the coast of northern Africa and even in the recesses of the
Sahara; through the Pillars of Hercules to England and up into
Scotland; across the channel into Germany and the north countries;
and down into the great lands along the Danube, he everywhere made
his way. London was at one time a great center of his worship.
The greatest number of mithrea were built in Germany. Ernest Renan
once said that if ever Christianity had become s mitten by a fatal
malady Mithraism might very easily: have become the established and
official religion of the whole Western World. Men might now be
saying prayers to Mithra, and have their children baptised in
There is not here space to describe in what manner the cult became
modified, by its successful spread across the Roman Empire. It was
modified, of course, and in many ways profoundly, and it in turn
modified everything with which it came into contact.
Here is a brief epitome of the evolution of this Mystery. It began
at a remote time among primitive Iranian tribesmen. It picked up a
body of doctrine from the Babylonian star worshippers, who created
that strange thing known as astrology. It became a mystery,
equipped with powerful rites, in the Asia Minor countries. It
received a decent outward appearance at the hand of Greek artists
and philosophers; and it finally became a world religion among the
Romans. Mithraism reached its apogee in the second century; it
went the way of all flesh in the fourth century; and flickered out
entirely in the fifth century, except that bits of its wreckage
were salvaged and used by a few new cults, such as those of the
various forms of Manicheeism.
III - THE MITHRAIC THEORY OF THINGS
After overthrowing its hated rival, the early Christian Church so
completely destroyed everything having to do with Mithraism that
there have remained behind but few fragments to bear witness to a
once victorious religion. What little is accurately known will be
found all duly set down and correctly interpreted in the works of
the learned Dr. Franz Cumont, whose books on the subject so aroused
the ire of the present Roman Catholic Hierarchy that they placed
them on the Index, and warned the faithful away f rom his chapters
of history. Today, as in Mithra's time, superstitions and empty
doctrines have a sorry time when confronted with known facts.
The pious Mithraist believed that back of the stupendous scheme of
things was a great and unknowable deity, Ozmiuzd by name, and that
Mithra was his son. A soul destined for its prison house of flesh
left the presence of Ormuzd, descended by the gates of Cancer,
passed through the spheres of the seven planets and in each of
these picked up some function or faculty for use on the earth.
After its term here the soul was prepared by sacraments and
discipline for its re-ascent after death. Upon its return jou rney
it underwent a great ordeal of judgment before Mithra. Leaving
something behind it in each of the planetary spheres it finally
passed back through the gates of Capricorn to ecstatic union with
the great Source of all. Also there was an eternal hell, and those
who had proved unfaithful to Mithra were sent there. Countless
deons, devils and other invisible monsters raged about everywhere
over the earth tempting souls, and presided over the tortures in
the pit. Through it all the planets continued to ex ercise good or
evil influence over the human being, according as his fates might
chance to fall out on high, a thing imbedded in the cult from its
old Babylonian days.
The life of a Mithraist was understood as a long battle in which,
with Mithra's help, he did war against the principles and powers of
evil. In the beginning of his life of faith he was purified by
baptism, and through all his days received strength through
sacraments and sacred meals. Sunday was set aside as a holy day,
and the twenty-fifth of December began a season of jubilant
celebration. Mithraic priests were organized in orders, and were
deemed to have supernatural power to some extent or other.
It was believed that Mithra had once come to earth in order to
organize the faithful into the army of Ormuzd. He did battle with
the Spirit of all Evil in a cave, the Evil taking the form of a
bull. Mithra overcame his adversary and then returned to his place
on high as the leader of the forces of righteousness, and the judge
of all the dead. All Mithraic ceremonies centered about the bull
The ancient Church Fathers saw so many points of resemblance
between this cult and Christianity that many of them accepted the
theory that Mithraism was a counterfeit religion devised by Satan
to lead souls astray. Time has proved them to be wrong in this
because at bottom Mithraism was as different from Christianity as
night from day.
IV - IN WHAT WAY MITHRAISM WAS LIKE FREEMASONRY
Masonic writers have often professed to see many points of
resemblance between Mithraism and Freemasonry. Albert Pike once
declared that Freemasonry is the modern heir of the Ancient
Mysteries. It is a dictum with which I have never been able to
agree. There are similarities between our Fraternity and the old
Mystery Cults, but most of them are of a superficial character, and
have to do with externals of rite or, organization, and not with
inward content. When Sir Samuel Dill described Mithraism as "a s
acred Freemasonry" he used that name in a very loose sense.
Nevertheless, the resemblances are often startling. Men only were
admitted to membership in the cult. "Among the hundreds of
inscriptions that have come down to us, not one mentions either a
priestess, a woman initiate, or even a donatress." In this the
mithrea differed from the collegia, which latter, though they
almost never admitted women as members, never hesitated to accept
help or money from them. Membership in Mithraism was as democratic
as it is with us, perhaps more so; slaves were freely admitt ed and
often held positions of trust, as also did the freedmen of whom
there were such multitudes in the latter centuries of the empire.
Membership was usually divided into seven grades, each of which had
its own appropriate symbolical ceremonies. Initiation was the
crowning experience of every worshipper. He was attired
symbolically, took vows, passed through many baptisms, and in the
higher grades ate sacred meals with his fellows. The great event
of the initiate's experiences was the taurobolium, already
described. It was deemed very efficacious, and was supposed to
unite the worshipper with Mithra himself. A dramatic
representation of a dying and a rising again was at the head of all
these ceremonies. A tablet showing in bas relief Mithra's killing
of the bull stood at the end of every mithreum.
This, mithreum, as the meeting place, or lodge, was called, was
usually cavern shaped, to represent the cave in which the god had
his struggle. There were benches or shelves along the side, and on
these side lines the members sat. Each mithreum had its own
officers, its president, trustees, standing committees, treasurer,
and so forth, and there were higher degrees granting special
privileges to the few. Charity and Relief were universally
practised and one Mithraist hailed another as "brother." The Mith
raic "lodge" was kept small, and new lodges were developed as a
result of "swarming off" when membership grew too large.
Manicheeism, as I have already said, sprang fr the ashes of
Mithraism, and St. Augustine, who did so much to give shape to the
Roman Catholic church and theology was for many years an ardent
Manichee, an through him many traces of the old Persian creed found
their way into Christianity. Out of Manicheeism, or out of what
was finally left of it, came Paulicianism, and out of Paulicianism
came many strong medieval cults - the Patari, the Waldenses, the
Hugenots, and countless other such developments. Throug h these
various channels echoes of the old Mithraism persisted over Europe,
and it may very well be, as has often been alleged, that there are
faint traces of the ancient cult to be found here and there in our
own ceremonies or symbolisms. Such theories are necessarily vague
and hard to prove, and anyway the thing is not of sufficient
importance to argue about. If we have three or four symbols that
originated in the worship of Mithra, so much the be tter for
After all is said and done the Ancient Mysteries were among the
finest things developed in the Roman world. They stood for
equality in a savagely aristocratic and class-riddled society; they
offered centers of refuge to the poor and the despised among a
people little given to charity and who didn't believe a man should
love his neighbour; and in a large historical way they left behind
them methods of human organization, ideals and principles and hopes
which yet remain in the world for our use and profit. It a man
wishes to do so, he may say that what Freemasonry is among us, the
Ancient Mysteries were to the people of the Roman world, but it
would be a difficult thing for any man to establish the fact that
Freemasonry has directly descended from those great cults.
[Note: Kipling, who has never wearied of handling themes concerned
with Freemasonry, often writes of Mithraism. See in especial his
Puck of Pook's Hill, page 173 of the 1911 edition, for the stirring
Song to Mithras.]
WORKS CONSULTED IN PREPARING THIS ARTICLE
The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, Vol. II, Waite. The Book of
Acts, Expositor's Bible. Mystery Religions and the New Testament,
Sheldon. Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, Sir Samuel
Dill. The Works of Franz Cumont. Le Culte de Mithra, Gasquet. On
Isis and Osiris, Plutarch. Life of Pompey, Plutarch. Annals,
Tacitus. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. Mythrasliturgie,
Dielitch. De Corona, Tertullion. History of France, Vol. V, Vol.
VI, Vol. VII, Duruy. Neoplatonism, Bigg. Roman Society in the Last
Century of the Western Empire, Sir Samuel Dill. Menippus, Lucian.
Thebaid, Statius. See bibliography in Hasting's Encyclopedia of
Religion and Ethics, Vol. VIII, p. 752. Ars Quatuor Coronatorum,
Vol. III, p. 109; Vol. IV, p. 32; Vol. XIII, p. 90. The History of
Freemasonry, Vol. I, Gould.
Mackey's Encyclopedia-(Revised Edition):
Allah, 46, Babylon, 89. Egyptian Mysteries, 232-233. Egyptian
Priests, Initiations of the, 234. Gnostics, 300-301. Legend, 433.
Manichaeans, 462. Mithras, Mysteries of, 485-487. Mohammed, 488.
Mysteries, Ancient, 497-500. Mystery, 500. Myth, 501. Myth,
Historical, 501. Mythical History, 501. Mythology, 501. Myth,
Philosophical, 501. Ormuzd, 539. Persia, 558 Pike, Albert, 563.
Roman Colleges of Artificers, 630-634.
Vol. 1, 1915. - Symbolism, The Hiramic Legend, and the Master's
Word, p. 285; Symbolism in Mythology, p. 296.
Vol. II, 1916. - Masonry and the Mysteries, p. 19; The Mysteries of
Mithra, p. 94; The Dionysiacs, p. 220; The Mithra Again, p. 254;
The Ritual of Ancient Egypt, p. 285; The Dionysiaes, p. 287.
Vol. III, 1917. - The Secret Key, p. 158; Mithraism, p. 252; Vol.
IV, 1918. - The Ancient Mysteries, p. 223.
Vol. V, 1919. - The Ancient Mysteries Again, p. 25; The Eleusinian
Mysteries and Rites, pp. 143, 172; The Mystery of Masonry, p. 189;
The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites, pp. 218, 240.
Vol. VI, 1920. - A Bird's-Eye View of Masonic History, p. 236.
Vol. VII, 1921. - Whence Came Freemasonry, p. 90; Books on the
Mysteries of Isis, Mithras and Eleusis, p. 205.
Vol. VIII, 1922. - A Mediating Theory, p. 318; Christianity and the
Mystery Religions, p. 322.