The youthful God Mithra symbolizing the Glorious Rays of the Sun. From Mount Nemrut Pantheon of Armenian Gods (sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World) erected by King Antiochus Theos (86-38 BCE) of Commagene. (Phrygian cap)

WESTERN ARMENIA In the Armenian heathen Pantheon Mihr (Mithra or Mithras in Latin) was considered a supreme deity. Mihr was the personification of the Illuminating Rays of the Sun. The Grand Temple of Mihr/Mithra was located in the town of Bagaharich in the county of Derjan of the Upper Armenia province of Greater Armenia.

The earliest mentioning of the worship of Mithra has been recorded in the Armenian Kingdom of Hurri-Mitanni. It was found in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Hittite capital Hattusa during the 1907 archaeological excavations. The Hittite cuneiform inscriptions mention some of the notable Armenian Gods and Goddesses that made up the Armenian Pantheon of Gods in the Mitanni Kingdom.

Hittite king Suppiluliuma (reigned between 1344 to 1322 BCE) who achieved fame as a great warrior and statesman, ordered the recording of a peace treaty between himself and the Armenian king Šattivaz (reigned ca. 1350-1320 BCE), they represented the Hittite and Armenian kingdoms respectively. Suppiluliuma swears upon the great deities of Armenia and specifically calls upon Mithra to bless and protect the treaty of friendship and peace between the kingdoms of Hatti and Mitanni.

As was noted, this treaty was made in the 14th century BCE, and this is the earliest recorded inscription that mentions Mithra as one of the supreme Gods of Armenia. This is roughly one thousand years before the God Mithra is mentioned in the Iranian inscriptions and the Indian Vedas. Some Indo-Iranian scholars have wrongly attributed Mithra as an Iranian or Indian deity, however as we have seen, the oldest inscription that sites Mithra as a God comes from the above noted 14th century BCE inscription that mentions Mithra as a native Armenian deity that occupied a very special place in the Armenian National Pantheon of Gods.

What scholars often fail to realize is that in the Gathas, the earliest sacred Zoroastrian texts attributed to Zoroaster himself, Mithra is not mentioned. Furthermore, Mithra also does not appear by name in the Yasna Haptanghaiti, a seven-verse section of the Yasna liturgy that is linguistically as old as the Gathas. Many scholars have noted that the lack of any mention (i.e. Zoroaster’s silence) of Mithra in these texts implies that Zoroaster in fact had rejected Mithra. This is supported by the fact that Zoroaster did not mention Mithra, because in fact, in the earliest Avestan writings both Mihr-Mithra and the Armenian Matron Goddess Anahit were condemned as “daevas” or “false gods” or “daemons” that were not to be worshiped.

It was only in the fourth century BCE, when we for the first time find the mentioning of Mithras in the Iranian context as a “positive’ deity of the very radiance of the Sun in the inscriptions of the Achaemenid king Xerxes II Mnemon. The Religion of Mithras or Mithraism as it became known in the West would soon spread beyond the borders of Armenia, not only towards the East, towards Iran and India, but also towards the West. Mithraic temples known as Mithraea sprang up all over the Roman Empire. They were mostly promoted by Armenian aristocrats who already by this time were prominent generals in the Roman Army. Armenian King Tiridates III is a good example, who prior to his coronation was a prominent general in the Roman Army. It was Emperor Diocletian a close friend and fellow Mithraic devotee of Tiridates who asked the Armenian king to take the challenge of personal combat from a Gothic chief, Trdat III (Tiridates III) successfully stood in for the Emperor and won the tournament.

By the second century AD Mithraism was virtually the state religion of the Roman Empire and virtually all of the Roman Emperors during this time and prior to adoption of Christianity in the Fourth century CE were high initiates of the Mithraic mysteries. Most of the Mithraic rites along with the rituals and rites were simply taken over by the newly forming Roman Catholic Church.

The traditional crown of the Armenian kings 8 rays/pyramids on top of the crown standing for the Sun’s rays (symbolizing Mithra) along with the 8-pointed star flanked by two eagles facing it (also Mithraic symbolism). The Sun King symbolized the physical incarnation of the Sun God in the world and the Armenian tiara symbolized the union of spiritual and material worlds which in turn were symbolized by the crown and the leather silk portion of the diadem respectively (united by the sacred thread/headband of glory). Historic reconstruction of the bust of the Armenian King of Kings Tigranes II the Great (reigned 95-55 BCE) by gifted artist Robert Hazarapetyan.

Mithraic mysteries that began in Armenia in the Second millennium BCE, spread through the Roman Empire left a lasting legacy on Western society and civilization in general. Many customs and norms are in fact taken directly from Mithraic mysteries (just one notable example would be the handshake, which was specifically used by the devotees of Mithras and today has become common place greeting gesture all over the world). Many of the holidays that we come to celebrate (including Christmas on December 25) also come directly from Mithraism which were celebrated by the Roman emperors and later the Roman Catholic Church. The tradition of building churches right into the caves (where the Mithraic mysteries took place) continued by the Armenian Apostolic Church well into the Middle Ages as the surviving world renowned Geghard Monastery Complex, in Armenia, attests to this great legacy.

Garni (Armenian: Գառնի) is a temple complex located in the Kotayk Province of Armenia, situated approximately 32 km southeast from Yerevan. It is the only surviving Armenian National Mithraic Temple of the Sun God Mithra from First Century CE erected by the orders of King Tiridates I Arsacid (reigned 52-75 CE). There were 8 sacred heathen centers of the Armenian Gods and Goddesses throughout Greater Armenia with countless beautiful temples in every one of these 8 centers.

– Excerpts from Pre-Christian Gods of Armenia (Glendale, 2007) by Hovik Nersisian (1921-2009). Nersisian is an author of many books and articles. He was a renowned scholar who in 1991, for his merits in Iranian Studies, most notably the study of the oldest surviving copies of the Avesta, became a full-member of New York’s Academy of Sciences.

An essay by Gevork Nazaryan.