Often times in history we confront extremely challenging and provoking question, none more so than whether Mithraism was the most metal religion…
The Mithraic mysteries are a fascinating little cult because it was extremely prevalent, yet we know almost nothing about it. There are a handful of literary mentions of it, but the lionshare of information on it comes from its iconography, which places Classical archaeologists in the same place most archaeologists are all the time in reconstructing religious belief from imagery. Because of this, its importance has been exaggerated somewhat in the modern world, and it is not uncommon to see it appropriated by assorted kooks and new agey people today. There is also a persistent story going around that it is the basis for Christianity and Jesus is a redressed Mithras: what the justification for this claim is I will never know. Within the Roman Empire it was of profound importance within the army and within the networks of freedmen and others who made up the Imperial household bureaucracy. That being said, it was never given official sanction, and no Mithraic site has ever been found within the confines of a military camp.
Its origins are a little vague: it was once widely accepted that it was an Eastern import from the Persian Empire, a rather reasonable conclusion given that Mithras was an Iranian deity of great antiquity. However, more research on the Persians has shown that the Mithraic cult was really quite unlike anything that actually existed within Persia itself, rather, the Eastern elements were borrowed to make the imagery more exotic and antique-seeming. Interestingly, Mithraic sanctuaries closer to Persia show a greater prevalence of imagery that was ‘accurate” to Iranian belief, so it seems that those with familiarity with Iran purposefully shifted the imagery to be more authentic.
Even without witches and Jesuses, however, it is a fascinating example of the sort of religious diversity within the Early Imperial period of the Roman Empire.