When I asked the concierge of my hotel in Rome for directions to the Church of San Clemente, he said no one had ever asked him for these directions before. It was on few tourists’ top-ten lists of places of interest. After answering my question, he posed one in return, “Do you know what lies under that church?” I nodded that I did. The church was built over an ancient temple to the god Mithra. This god was significant in Rome before the birth of Christ and was actually the state religion. His “cult,” as it would be referred to much later, had been populated strictly by men and mostly by soldiers.
Mithra was the Persian Savior god who predated Jesus by centuries. He was born in a cave on the same day of the year that Jesus was, December 25. His mother was a virgin, his father, the Sun. Magi and shepherds attended his birth, and his life is full of miraculous deeds including the healing of the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and the casting out of devils. Before his ascension to heaven he celebrated a last meal with twelve disciples. His ascension was celebrated at the Christian Easter. His image was then buried in a rock tomb in hopes that someday he would return.
Pleased that I was aware of Rome’s ancient god Mithra and this unusual church, the concierge reached over the desk to shake my hand. He then explained that the handshake was started by adherents to the Mithra religion. The handshake was never a Greek or Roman custom, nor was it a greeting in Babylon or Israel. It signified a transfer of power from God to his representatives on earth, his priests, or as a greeting between initiates. It spread as it became custom within areas of Roman military influence.
With that I headed to the Coliseum and continued past it by barely one-hundred yards. There, on the quiet side street of Via San Giovanni, the Church of San Clemente stands. There is little of significance on the outside and one might walk by without recognizing it as a church. Inside is another story.
The church was built in the twelfth century and has a beautiful mosaic from that period as well as some large frescoes of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation, and scenes from the lives of several important saints. These include even St. Christopher who was later deemed to be most likely mythical. It also holds vestiges of an even earlier church that it was built over, including marble choir screens that had been salvaged.
This earlier church is believed to have been built in A.D. 392 and can be reached by a stairway from the right aisle. It was dedicated to the saint that is believed to be the third Pope of the Catholic Church, Clement. This church was destroyed during the Norman invasions around the time of the crusades. The church is mostly intact as it was well preserved until being unearthed in 1857 by Irish monks. The discovery may have been a surprise, but a greater mystery was also to be unearthed. Under this fourth century church was still another level. It contains a temple called the Mithraeum, and it is one of the few shrines dedicated to the god Mithra that has survived outside of Asia.
Visitors who tread here two floors under the church are greeted by an eerie series of chambers connected to tunnels. Many rooms simply lead only to another room and the visitor can be forgiven for worrying that he or she might become lost. The complex holds one large section that once served as a warehouse, another section believed to have once been part of a palace, and a tunnel that was actually a road. In one of the most remote rooms, there can be heard the somewhat disturbing sounds of running water although no water is visible. Behind the stone is an underground stream that flushes out Rome’s principle sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima.
Despite the darkness of this underground temple, Mithra was called the God of Light. His religion had been born at least a thousand years before when Zoroaster preached the concept of one universal god and the eternal war between good and evil. This prophet foreshadowed the tenets of Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam. In Persia the Dualism took form as Ahura-Mazda, the sun god born as the twin of Ahriman, the dark god. The twins had been born of the Creatress, who was later forgotten. The good twin later became known as Mithra. One of his titles is the Invincible Sun. His worshippers believed that at the end of the world there would be a great battle fought by the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness. Mithra’s followers were the good guys.
A Mithraic prayer says that in the beginning the two spirits came together. They created Life and Non-Life. In the end, the prayer cautions, the followers of evil will suffer the worst existence, while the best existence shall be for those who follow the right. The message is not unlike the message of Christianity.
In practice, however, it was not a message of the meek inheriting the earth. It was the strong.
For a soldier to be accepted into the faith was an honor. He would be blessed by the god who on Earth was represented by the bull. He would draw on the powers of the bull god that exhibited both strength and fertility. As the bull was the source of such power, the soldier utilized such strength for the benefit of his nation. The worship of the bull itself was not new—from Egypt and the Levant to the British Isles the bull was held in high regard and coupled with worship of the sun. Poseidon was regarded as a bull god as was Shiva in India. Italy itself was named for the Vitalia, the Sons of the Bull. The Mithra faith may have simply served as a variation of the practices of Sun and Bull worship.
Constantine was the emperor of Rome until A.D. 337. He claimed that he, himself, was the incarnation of Mithra. He was also the driving force in the project of making Christianity “Catholic” or universal. It served his purpose, as Rome did not, to have a war within its borders as it fought against enemies outside its borders. Uniting both pagan and Christian would make his empire stronger. He had lived his own life in the religion of his father, who was also a follower of the Invincible Sun. During this time, the religion of Mithra had been the established religion of Rome despite the fact that it excluded women.
While many of Constantine’s deeds would not be called “Christian,” he did promote tolerance which allowed pagans and Christians to enjoy freedom from persecution. On his deathbed he converted to Christianity.
After the death of Constantine, the Christians, once the victims of persecution, became the aggressors and persecuted some pagan religions and overcame others through assimilation. Never before had a new cult been able to gather power so quickly that it could attempt to stamp out the established religion of the government. Christianity succeeded. The assimilation process had presented some problems for the new faith. The Mithra religion may have been particularly embarrassing to Christianity because of the obvious similarities that had been adopted by the newer religion. There were so many shared characteristics that St. Augustine questioned whether both faiths were actually both worshipping the same God. Many of these coincidences were a result of the influence of Constantine himself. What once enabled Constantine and the Christian Council of Nicaea to ease the transition from Mithra to Jesus, would become difficult to explain away.
Even the holiest day of worship to early Christians and Jews, the Sabbath, which was once celebrated on Saturday, was changed by Constantine to Sun-Day. Jesus himself would have observed the Sabbath of Judaism. The birth of Jesus, once celebrated on January 6, (and still celebrated on that day by the Eastern churches) was moved to December 25 to accommodate Mithra.
New Testament stories were not the only ones to show evidence of being grounded through Persian influence. The Old Testament, attributed to prophets of Judaism (and God himself) carried a version of the Mithraic story of Ahura-Mazda, a Dualistic creation. This god was given credit for planting the haoma tree. The fruit of this tree would bring immortal life to those who ate it. The Garden of Eden was, in Iran, a walled garden, a Pairi-daeza in that language.
The church would later alter the myth of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge. The famous line of Constantine’s, “By this sign I will conquer” was the labarum, a monogram of Mithra and the all-powerful Sun, not the Christian cross. The church nevertheless would declare it was the cross that Constantine had in mind.
Before the worship of Mithra was stamped out by Christianity, along came Mani. He was born near Baghdad. As a young man he was initiated into a mystical cult by his father. They wore the white robes of the Essenes and practiced baptism. As Christianity had apostles spreading the Word, Mithraism had the apostle Mani. Rome for centuries had already accepted belief in Mithra, so it was easy to accept the concept of Dualism which was incorporated in Mithraism. Mani preached this doctrine, carrying it from Persia to Europe. Dualism teaches the balance between good and evil, the light and the dark, already present in Mithraic teaching. While Christianity shared the concept in part, it didn’t believe the creation of the material world was evil, a concept shared by pre-Christian Essenes, and surviving among later Cathars and Albigensians into and beyond the fourteenth century. Mani put many of the concepts in writing in his Fundamental Epistle that started: “May the peace of the Invisible God and the Knowledge of truth be with our holy and dearest brothers.”
The word “brothers” again implies it was a male oriented religion and may have been influential in other secretive, often male-only organizations. It is one of the clues that Mithraic traditions found their way into organizations including the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Tracing a direct line from the ancient sources to the Knights Templar and modern Freemasonry is difficult. But some the characteristics that are shared influences are glaring evidence.
Mani referred to Jesus as the Son of the Widow and to himself as the same. He claimed to have fasted in solitude for a long period and to have “met” Jesus during this time. The Templars would later have a motto for never turning away a “son of the Widow.” Another link between the Templar legend and Manichaeanism is that they were accused of worshipping a severed head. If this is true, and not another invention used to prove the Templars to be heretics, it can be related to the story of John the Baptist who had preceded Jesus. The Baptist was beheaded while in prison. Many believe John was part of the Essene sect as they were famous for the Baptism rite. The same rite was found among the sacraments of Mithra and the Christian sacraments as well. Mani, like John the Baptist, was, in AD 276, decapitated. Could a Templar tradition have been based in worship of John the Baptist, reverence for the preacher Mani, or both?
Mithraic practice was shared by both Templars and Freemasons and survived in Christianity.
Like Freemasons there were various degrees of initiation. In Freemasonry, arriving at the Third Degree was important, and there are thirty-three levels. In Mithraism there are four initiatory stages and three higher stages. In the four levels of entrance, one would start with the degree of Corax (Raven), which was a symbol of the Moon. The second was Cryphias (the Hidden One), a sign of the planet Mercury. This was followed by the Warrior (actually Venus) and the Lion (the Sun). From this stage, one was a full member. The higher degrees included the Persian (Mars), the Sun-Runner (Jupiter) and the Father (Saturn). This highest degree of Father was called in Roman the Pater Patrum, similar to the Pope’s title.
These seven can be compared to Christianity’s Baptism (the Moon), Penance (Mercury), Marriage (Venus), Communion (Sun), Confirmation (Mars), Holy Orders (Jupiter) and the Last Rites (Saturn). The number seven is prominent in both faiths, as well as in the Kabbalah where the seven flames of the Menorah represent the seven planets (which in the Kabbalah tradition include the sun and moon).
Manichaeanism was a variation of a religion blending Gnostic Christianity and Mithraic traditions. This form of religion had little dogma that would be at odds with Christianity as both faiths were pervaded by the eternal conflict of darkness and light, of good and evil. The commonality between the Roman Catholic Church and the teachings of Mani would separate when it came down to the idea of direct relationship with God. The Church would then accuse Manichaeans, Cathars, Albigensians, and others of the heresy of requiring no central authority on Earth. Such “heretical” beliefs became the cause of a propaganda war against the pagan cult of Mithra that still pervades modern thought. One twentieth century writer claims “there is no evidence that the Mithraists ever preached a morality of love,” yet a minor title of Mithra was “mehr,” a Persian word literally meaning “love” in English.
The religion of the Invincible Sun was at odds with most of the non-militaristic faiths. In the temple two stories under the modern San Clemente, one of those eerie places in the complex of tunnels and connecting rooms was the taurobolium. It was said to be where the initiates were baptized to enter the first level of the Mithraic religion. The baptism was similar to baptism as practiced by the Essenes, and Christians, but it is believed that the blood of a sacrificed bull was used in place of water. Bull cults were nearly universal when Christianity began to take root and a bull was annually publicly sacrificed on the Vatican hill, near the location of St. Peter’s Cathedral. After Christianity had existed three centuries in Rome, the practice was stopped. The anointing in the blood of the bull had been practiced elsewhere including Eleusis, in Greece, and as far away as England where Roman soldiers carried the faith. In becoming a more gentle faith, Christianity outlawed the sacrifice of the bull and declared that Jesus was the lamb whose sacrifice took away the sins of the world.