1. Education

Solstice Celebrations

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and Mithras

By

Dateline: 12/23/97

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, perhaps, a minor Zoroastrian deity**, the god of the airy light between heaven and earth. He was also said to have been 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 (or festival [Survivals of Roman Religions p. 150]) 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 thought to have been 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'. [See Dating Christmas.]

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."
- Pagan Origins of Christmas

Update: 12/23/09

See: Mithraism

All this is not without controversy. In the 9th chapter of his dissertation, Aurelian, Constantine, and Sol in Late Antiquity, S.E. Hijmans rejects the attribution to Aurelian for the date of Christmas:
*"On G. Wissowa's (1912, 367) contention that the festival was instituted by Aurelian, cf. Wallraff 2001, 176-7 n. 12; Salzman 1990, 151 n. 106; Heim 1999, 643 with refs. There is no explicit evidence stating that the feast of December 25th was instituted by Aurelian. In fact the calendar of 354, supplemented by Julian's hymn to Helios, is our only conclusive evidence for an official feast day in honour of Sol on that day. On the evidence currently available we cannot exclude the possibility that, for instance, the 30 chariot races held in honor of Sol on December 25th were instituted in reaction to the Christian claim of December 25th as the birthday of Christ. In general, the extent to which late pagan festivals copied, incorporated, or responded to Christian practices, elements, and dates deserves far more attention than it has received; cf. Bowersock 1990, 26-7, 44-53."

For more on the virgin (or other) birth of Mithras, see:

  • "The Miraculous Birth of Mithras," by M. J. Vermaseren Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3/4 (1951), pp. 285-301

For more on modern biographies of Mithras, see:

  • "Merkelbach's Mithras," by Roger Beck. Phoenix, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 296-316

*"On the Antiquity of Vedic Culture"
Hermann Oldenberg
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (Oct., 1909), pp. 1095-1100

**"On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism"
Mary Boyce
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1969), pp. 10-34
and
"Zoroastrian Survivals in Iranian Folklore"
R. C. Zaehner
Iran, Vol. 3, (1965), pp. 87-96

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.