Mithra, or Mehr in contemporary Persian, means “Light”, “Love”, and “Friend.” He was born of his virgin mother in the middle of the night from December 24th to 25th, which (by the reckoning of ancient calendars) is the Winter Solstice – the rebirth of light from out of the most encompassing darkness. This is celebrated at Yalda (an Indo-European cognate of Yule Day), one of the four most sacred Zoroastrian holidays still commemorated in Iran. Mithras was the “lord of green pastures” and the evergreen tree represented Truth, evoking his status as the god of trustworthy Oaths and Contracts, so Yalda was celebrated by bringing an evergreen into an enclosure and giving it gifts. Unlike the contemporary practice of this Yule tree tradition, the evergreen – usually a Cypress (Sarv) in Iran – was brought in together with its roots and then re-planted after the holiday. Mithra wears a red Phrygian cap, evoked by the Mitre of the Pater (Persian Pedar, “Father” or Pir in Sufism), as well as a white belted red cloak and trousers – a distinctively Iranian garment of Parthian and Scythian riders that spread to Europe only later, in large part through Mithraism. Are you reminded of Santa Claus? Devotees of Mithra celebrated holy communion, with wine and loaves of bread that were impressed with the symbol of an equilateral cross inside of a circle – a reference to the equinoxes and solstices of the Invincible Sun (Mehré Jâvedân in Persian, Sol Invictus in Latin). Baptism was also practiced, since Anahita is the goddess of the holy waters and the Lady of the Lake. She virginally conceives of the avatar of Mithra by submerging in Lake Hamun (in Sistan), where legend has it that the seed of Zarathustra was preserved.
The similarities of Mithraism to Christianity frightened the Christian writers who became aware of them, and they resorted to claiming that the devil, who had the demonic power to attain foreknowledge of the coming of Christ, had imitated elements of what would become Christianity and introduced them into the world in order to denigrate them and to misguide people. Obviously, Zarathustra would have seen it the other way around: the Great Deceiver distorting Mazda’s World Savior. In The Error of Pagan Religions (350 AD), the early Christian evangelist Firmicus Maternus chastises his fellow Romans for their Persianization:
The Persians and all the Magi who dwell in the confines of the Persian land give their preference to fire and think it ought to be ranked above all the other elements. So they divide fire into potencies, relating its nature to the potency of the two sexes, and attributing the substance of fire to the image of a man and the image of a woman. The woman they represent with triform countenance, and entwine her with snaky monsters. …The male they worship is a cattle rustler, and his cult they relate to the potency of fire, as his prophet handed down the lore to us, saying: mysta booklopies, syndexie patros agauou (initiate of cattle-rustling, companion by hand-clasp of an illustrious father). Him they call Mithra, and his cult they carry on in hidden caves. …Him whose crime you acknowledge you think to be a god. So you who declare it proper for the cult of the Magi to be carried on by the Persian rite in these cave temples, why do you praise only this among the Persian customs? If you think it worthy of the Roman name to serve the cults of the Persians, the laws of the Persians…
The core symbols and rites of Mithraism that are appropriated by Christianity date from at least the third century BC, the start of the Parthian dynasty. The Parthian princes, who perfected the culture of knightly chivalry (Pahlavâni, Javânmardi) practiced by their Scythian and Sarmatian cousins in the North, were devotees of Mithra who engaged in a centuries-long struggle with the Roman Empire. Oddly enough, by the first century BC the Roman legionaries at war with Parthia began adopting the Iranian religion en masse and built Mithraeums everywhere they were stationed in Europe, from Palestine in the East to Spain in the southwest and Britain in the northeast.
The Mithraic legacy in Britain or Celtic Brittany and in southern Spain is particularly noteworthy because it did not only consist of indirect Iranian influence via the Roman legionaries. A group of Iranians from the Sarmatian confederation, whose warrior women and leading Ladies the Greeks mythologized as Amazons, rode from their homeland in the area between present-day Azerbaijan all the way across Europe. They are called Alans (Alani in Persian) and the name Alan in European languages derives from them. In fact, Alani is a linguistic corruption of Arani (think of how the Japanese turn an r into an l when they pronounce it). Aran was the ancient Iranian name of the Caucasus region. It is a contraction of Ar – the Indo-European root of the Persian words Arya and Arta (Truth) and of Greek words such as Aristocrat, Arete (Virtue) – and an, which is a place name designator, as in Gorgan (place of the wolves), or Abadan (well-built place).
Like their Scythian and Parthian cousins, the Alans were devotees of Mithra and especially of his lover and mother, Anahita – the Lady of the Lake. Their rituals involved a Cup or Grail filled with her holy water, and a trial of strength wherein a horseback rider would pull a cruciform sword up out of the earth in which it had been firmly lodged. They would also pray to these cruciform swords. The Alan Ladies controlled large territories as the chivalric knights (Javanmardan) would swear to be their champions (Pahlavan), pledging their love and loyalty in romantic courtly poetry. Rejecting the hierarchical authority of the Persian Empire, and consonant with the noble egalitarianism of Mithraism in general, these free-spirited Iranian knights each saw themselves as kings – so that their leader was simply a King of Kings, a knight of the round table. In their own adaptation of Zarathustra’s concept of the Saoshyant, the world savior Mithra, they looked forward to the return of a Once and Future King.
The Alans rode westwards across Roman Europe together with their close allies, the Goths, who absorbed this Grail mysticism and chivalric cult of courtly love for leading Ladies. One group of them that arrived in Spain even founded a kingdom together, Goth-Alania or Catalonia. It is from here that the Troubador culture spread throughout the rest of Occitan. That the Arthurian ethos of Germanic Europe is Iranian in origin is also supported by the fact that one of its masterworks, Tristan and Isoldeis modeled on Vis and Ramin – an epic romance originally dating from the Parthian period (247 BC – 224 AD), the era wherein the Mithra cult was most dominant in Iran. No earlier example of a convention-defying romantic love, and the roguish rescue of a lady in waiting, can be found than this tale which, after the Islamic conquest of Iran, was preserved by the 11th century Persian poet Fakhruddin Gorgani.
Aside from its influence on specific literary works or elements of Grail mysticism, the Parthian culture of Iran, the culture of Mithra’s princes, has a thoroughly medieval European knightly aesthetic – centuries before Gothic culture in Europe! When one looks at the architecture, statuary, and stone reliefs at Parthian archeological sites, or at crafts products from the Sassanian period that preserve Parthian themes, and compares these to the contemporaneous aesthetic of the pagan Roman Empire, then to the atmosphere of medieval ‘Christian’ Europe, the direction of influence is quite clear.
Three very common European hand gestures also appear to have an origin in the Iranian iconography of Mithra, where they are attested before any trace of them in Europe. One is the hand shake or hand clasp. Remember that Mithra is the “Friend.” Another is the raised right arm, bent at the elbow, as a greeting (Hail! or Doroud in Persian) and as a gesture of oath-taking (Mithra in the guise of god of Trust, invoked for contracts and pacts). Finally, the military salute where the right hand shields the eyes from the glory of the Unconquerable Sun (Mehre Javedan or Sol Invictus).
But how could Mithraism have become the dominant religion of the pagan Roman Empire, even though it was the cult of Rome’s rival superpower? The Parthian king Mithradates I (195 – 132 BC), whose name means “Mithra’s Justice” (Mehrdad) in Persian, had either set up or bought out the Cilician pirates of the Mediterranean Sea and was employing them essentially as a black ops or false-flag Persian Navy. Ostensibly stateless pirates driven by private avarice, they actually answered to Mithradates and were the vanguard of Mithraism in Europe. These Mithraists, to whom Anahita as a goddess of the waters was also no doubt very important, had connections to aristocratic houses all across the Roman Empire. Eventually they grew so formidable that the Roman Navy did not have freedom of movement in the Mediterranean. Even Julius Caesar was once taken prisoner by them on the high seas.
The cult of Mithras was well suited to Pirates on account of its extraordinary egalitarianism, itself an outgrowth of Zarathustra’s teachings against the Vedic caste system and his emphasis on individual conscience. In the secrecy of a Mithraeum, merchants were on an equal footing with upstanding citizens, who treated slaves as their equals and in this occult order even a common soldier who had attained the highest rank of initiation could be looked up to by an emperor. We can see this from the fact that just after Constantine adopted Christianity as the official state religion, a failed Mithraic restoration of sorts was staged by Caesar Julian (336 AD) who was himself a devotee of Mithras. Such was the threat to Roman national security by the rise of Mithraism as the de-facto religion of the Empire that, Roman elites around Constantine may have seen the adoption of Christianity as a bulwark to guard against a potential military coup that would have erased the border between Iran and Europe – as if it would have been a bad thing to reunify the Indo-European world!
A reunification of the Indo-European peoples through the cult of Mithra (i.e. Mithras/Mitra/Maitreya) would in all likelihood have even extended into those parts of Asia that had embraced Mahayana Buddhism. An Iranian reform of the Buddha Dharma, Mahayana took shape under Zoroastrian influence. The Mahayana doctrine was developed by the Kushan dynasty, Iranians of the Scythian tribe who swept down into northern India from Khorasan. They are cousins of the free-spirited riders who established the Parthian dynasty in Western Iran. In fact, north Indians referred to the Kushans by one of the same names used by the Parthians, Pahlava(n) – meaning “champion” and the word from which we get Pahlavi or the name of the Middle Persian language. Since the Parthians clearly emerged from a Mithraic culture in Khorasan, which we see reflected in the chivalrous romances and tragedies preserved by Ferdowsi in the Shahnameh, it is reasonable to assume that the Kushans, who are known to have been some kind of Zoroastrians, also revered Mithra. The central figure of Mahayana is Maitreya, the Buddha To Come, a savior figure that is anathema to the Buddha Dharma in its orthodox form as preached by Gautama and whose name is clearly a variant of Mithra.
Mahayana or “the Greater Vehicle” emerged when the Kushan King Kanishka the Great (127–163 AD) convened the largest Buddhist council in history at Kashmir, led by his advisor Ashvaghosha. Under the influence of the Iranian king the monks and scholars worked out a new vision of the Dharma. The founding texts of the new doctrine were engraved on copper plates, not in Sanskrit but in Kharoshti, a Hellenic script designed by Kanishka to express the Iranian language of the Kushans. Fundamental changes in doctrine shepherded by these men reflect Iranian influence.
The first and foremost of these is the distinction between an esoteric teaching and an exoteric teaching. As we shall see, this was also a key feature of Western Iranian and Roman Mithraism. It is the means by which the Mahayanists could retro-actively claim that Gautama did teach their “Greater Vehicle” to initiates and that the Theravada doctrine that is his only publicly recorded teaching (in the Tripitaka) was a Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle” calibrated to those with lesser understanding. The great difference between the two is that the Lesser Vehicle (which impartial scholars know to be Gautama’s actual teaching) focuses on individual escape from the cycle of karma in a world of misery. In its view a Buddha arises only once over vast cycles of time, so that the idea one could become a Buddha in one’s own lifetime is absurd. Whereas the Greater Vehicle holds that it is possible to attain perfect enlightenment here and now; the whole of creation is headed towards perfection, a Utopian society where all individuals will be delivered from suffering – essentially Zarathustra’s frashgard (frashokereti).
Instead of life being seen as suffering or perpetual dissatisfaction (dukkha), with the goal of life being extinction (nirvana), life comes to be seen as a blessed opportunity for self-perfection. In place of Gautama’s teaching that the ultimate nature of reality is nothingness (shunyata) and that one’s selfhood is an illusion to be overcome (anatta), Mahayanists put Zarathustra’s teaching about archetypes of our perfected light bodies into the mouth of their Buddha. Music, dance, art, and eros are condemned by Siddhartha as conduits of destructive desire and as behaviors that trivialize life’s all-pervasive misery. Prior to the Kushans there is hardly any ‘Buddhist art.’ Under Kanishka’s guidance we see merry making and even ecstatically erotic practices become sacraments of a Mahayana tradition that also generates a life-affirming ‘Buddhist’ art and architecture in a syncretic Greco-Persian style. Shakyamuni claims that women need to be reborn as men before attaining enlightenment whereas, like Zarathustra and the ancient Persian Emperors, Mahayana recognizes that women are the spiritual equals of men and are in some cases even fit to be their teachers. This was a view well suited to the horseback Iranian tribeswomen that Greeks mythologized as Amazons.
Under the influence of Zarathustra’s concept of Shahrivar or “Just Dominion”, unequivocal pacifism was rejected as a sign of Enlightenment. The Dharma Raja is no longer viewed as a beneficent but still unenlightened ruler, who would reject violence altogether if he were to attain Buddhahood. Instead, a perfectly enlightened sage can also be a ferocious warrior. Bodhidharma, a blue-eyed and red bearded Iranian, even developed a Buddhist martial arts tradition that he carried into Asia with him as part of the Chan or Zen teaching that was his particular contribution to Mahayana. Padmasambhava, another ethnic Iranian from Khorasan, later epitomized the Mahayana archetype of the fearsome warrior who is nonetheless a perfectly enlightened Buddha. The influence of the chivalric or heroic (Pahlavâni, Javânmardi) militarism characteristic of Mithraism is evident in these Iranian missionaries who carried Buddhism into Tibet and along the Silk Route further east to China and Japan. The first person to tread this path was the Persian prophet Mani, who was of Parthian lineage. Although he was not a Mithraist, that Mani explicitly tried to synthesize Zoroastrianism and Platonism with Buddhism, and even came to be known as “the Buddha of Light” as far east as China, speaks to the strategic depth and globalizing potential of Iranian influence during the period when Parthian Mithraism was the dominant religion of Iran and the rising de-facto faith of Iran’s greatest rival, the Roman Empire.
In fact, most of the Buddhist missionaries who turned the religion into an East Asian tradition were of Iranian origin and hailed from Khorasan, which was then the epicenter of Mahayana. The greatest Buddhist temple ever built, Now Bahar (“New Spring” in Persian) with its 93-meter golden dome, and the most colossal Buddha statues ever carved (at Bamiyan) were in eastern Iran. The Aryan bone structure, fair skin, blue or green eyes, and auburn hair of the missionaries who set out from here on journeys into Asia are clearly depicted in the beautiful cave murals that they left behind in places such as the Tien-Shan mountains of the western Gobi. Some of these caves have been sealed off from the public by the Chinese government. The reason is that the scenes depicted in them are so erotic that they would apparently offend contemporary public morality as badly as they would have offended the morality of early Indian Buddhists. What we have here is the iconography of the Left Hand Path, and I would argue that the true origins of Tantra are Mithraic and Iranian.
The Germanic barbarians, who would later dominate the Romans, first took on their distinct ethnic and linguistic identity when they broke off from the common ancestors that they shared with the Scythians living in the region north and west of the Black Sea (present-day Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria). Unlike the Persians, who adapted Semitic writing systems (Cuneiform, Aramaic) for the administration of their Empire, the Scythians had a runic writing system for their northern Iranian language that is similar to but older than the Germanic runes, and one of these runes is particularly worthy of note. To this day the word Tyr means “arrow” in Persian. In Iran’s mythology it refers to the arrow of Arash, the heroic bowman. The Persians were famous for archery, and this greatest of all archers lets loose a magical arrow that defines the scope of the rightful realm of Aryans (Iran) in distinction from the non-Aryan (Aniran) world.
In Greek, Indo-European sh syllables are often softened into s (as in Kourosh becoming Cyrus). So Arash becomes Ares, the god of war referred to by the Romans as Mars. Roman Mithraists conflated Mithras with Mars, a fact that provides some further context for how the cult of Mithras becomes the dominant religion of the Roman military. Now, in Nordic mythology Tyr is seen to be the equivalent of Mars or Ares. His rune symbol is the arrow, the one loosed by the bow of Arash. Finally, the Norse see Tyr as the god of oaths and contracts, exactly the same function that Mithra has in the religion of Zarathustra. The dog was considered among the most sacred animals by Zoroastrians, and the Persians who used dogs to guard their homes from demons, and considered cruelty towards dogs a capital offense, originated the tradition of the dog as “man’s best friend.” Fenrir, the wolf that Tyr is trying to domesticate (into a dog) bites off his right arm.
Instead of being seen negatively, the extended right arm of Tyr being bitten by Fenrir is the Norse symbol of swearing an oath – in other words a symbol of the Truthfulness and Trust that are at the core of Zarathustra’s teaching and that Mithra in particular embodies. This is why Mithra is depicted, together with his mother Anahita, in Sassanian reliefs portraying the investiture of Persian emperors (their oath of office). At the same time, the wolf leaves Tyr with only one hand to use – his Left Hand. Since it is easy to see how Tyr and Arash or Ares the bowman are a single figure, this means that the Aryan archer – our god of war – is forced to use his Left Hand. I believe this lies at the origin of the designation “Left Hand Path”. That would also explain why the north Indian branch of the primordial Indo-European tradition warns that the Left Hand Path is only suitable for warriors or individuals with heroic natures (Vira).
Ahura Mazda is the ashura or Titan of Wisdom, and Mithra is his great champion and world savior in the battle against the gods or daevas. If Zarathustra’s revolutionary teaching is what originally divided the Indo-European community, then I propose that is because it is the original form of the Left Hand Path or the Titanic (Ahurai) Religion. It is also worthy of note that, when the Tantric core of Mahayana is ultimately distilled by Padmasambhava (who I remind you, was from Khorasan), it adopted the designation Vajrayana or “Thunderbolt vehicle” suggesting the adamantine strength of the titan who steals Indra’s scepter and makes it his own. The lightning strike or thunderbolt is, of course, another connection between the Norse tradition of Tyr or Thor and this titanic current of Buddhism that followed the silk route to Asia from Eastern Iran.