Mithra – The Chief Deity of the Religious Pantheon of Ancient Armenia

Mithra – The Chief Deity

Mihr (Mher, Mithra or Mithras in Latin) was the main deity of the pantheon of ancient Armenia. In the Armenian pagan pantheon, Mihr was considered the chief deity. Mihr was the personification of the Illuminating Rays of the Sun.

The main temple of Mihr was located in the town of Bagaran in the Derdzhan region of Upper Armenia, one of the provinces of Greater Armenia.

The earliest mention of the Mithra cult dates to the period of the Armenian kingdom of Hurri-Mitanni. It was found in the cuneiform tablets of the Hittite capital Hattusa during archeological excavations of 1907.

In the Hittite cuneiform are mentioned some of the famous Armenian gods and goddesses which belonged to the Armenian pantheon of the Mitanni state. The Hittite king Šuppiluliuma I (reigned between 1344 to 1322 BC) ordered to create a record of the conclusion of a peace treaty between him and the Armenian king Shattiwaza (ruled in circa 1350-1320 BC).

Šuppiluliuma appealed to the great deities of Armenia and, in particular, appealed to Mithra to receive blessing and protection for the treaty of friendship and peace between the kingdoms of Hittites and Mitanni.

As noted, this treaty was concluded in the 14th century BC, and this is the earliest record where Mithras is mentioned as one of the supreme gods of Armenia. It is about one thousand years older than the mentions of the god Mithra in the Iranian inscriptions and the Indian Vedas.

Some Indian and Iranian scholars mistakenly identify their deities with Mithras. However, as we can see, the most ancient record mentioning Mithra as a god is dated to the 14th century BC, in which Mithra is spoken of as an originally Armenian deity that occupied a very special place in the Armenian pantheon.

Nevertheless, these scholars have overlooked that in Gathas, the earliest sacred Zoroastrian texts attributed to Zoroaster (Zarathustra) himself, Mithra is never mentioned. Moreover, Mithra is also not mentioned in Yasna, whose linguistic age is the same as that of Gathas.

Many scholars note that the absence of any references (i.e. the silence of Zoroaster) about Mithras in these texts means that Zoroaster actually rejected Mithras. This is also confirmed by the fact that in the early Avesta scriptures, both the god Mihr-Mitra and the chief Armenian goddess Anahit are called “devas”, “false gods”, or “demons” who should not be worshiped.

The first mention of Mithras as a “positive” deity of the Sunshine in Iranian texts was made by Achaemenid King Xerxes II of Persia in the 5th century BC. The religion of Mithra, or Mithraism, as it became known in the West, soon spread beyond Armenia, and not only to the east towards Iran and India but also to the West.

Mithraic temples, known as Mithraeums, spread throughout the Roman Empire. This was mainly promoted by Armenian aristocrats who by that time had already been prominent generals of the Roman army.

A good example of this is the Armenian King Trdat III who before his coronation was an outstanding general of the Roman army. Emperor Diocletian, being his close friend, asked him to personally accept the battle challenge of the Gotts. Trdat accepted the challenge and won the battle.

By the 2nd century BC, Mithraism had practically become the state religion of the Roman Empire. And almost all Roman emperors at that time and until the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century AD have been adherents of the Mithraic mysteries.

The eight rays (pyramids) on the traditional crown of Armenian kings denote the rays of the Sun symbolizing Mithras. Likewise, the eight-pointed star with eagles on each side is also a Mithraic symbol.

The King-Sun symbolized the physical incarnation of the Sun Deity in the world, and the Armenian tiara symbolized the unification of the spiritual and material worlds represented by the crown and the silk-leather part of the diadem. These two components were connected by the sacred rim, the ribbon of glory.

The Mithraic mysteries, having originated in Armenia in the 2nd millennium BC, were adopted in the West through the Roman Empire and became the basis of Western society and civilization as a whole.

Many of the customs and norms of society were taken directly from Mithraism. A vivid example of this is the handshake exchanged by the followers of Mithra, which has become a traditional greeting gesture throughout the world.

Many of the holidays that are celebrated today (including Christmas on December 25) also go back to Mithraism. These holidays were celebrated by Roman emperors and later by the Roman Catholic Church. The same applies to the Christian masses which are held on Sundays.

The tradition of temple building right in caves (where rituals dedicated to the Mithraic mysteries were held) has been continued by the Armenian Apostolic Church until the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the world-famous Geghard Monastery that has survived to this day. In total, there are 8 sacred centers of the pagan Armenian gods and goddesses throughout Greater Armenia, with many beautiful temples in each of these.

Historian Gevorg Nazaryan

Excerpts taken from “Pre-Christian Gods of Armenia” by Hovik Nersisyan (1921-2009), Glendale, 2007. Nersisyan has authored many books and articles. He was a well-known scientist who for his merits in Iranian studies and primarily for his study of the oldest surviving copy of Avesta was granted membership at the Academy of Sciences of New York in 1991.

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