This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Tolkien’s Christianity greatly influenced him as he wrote The Lord of the Rings. In a letter from 1953, Tolkien himself states that “the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters no. 142, p. 172).
While this influence is not readily apparent, it comes through in Tolkien’s worldbuilding. For example, the fall of Morgoth in the Silmarillion is clearly influenced by the fall of Lucifer (Letters no. 156, 183 and 212).
And yet, despite these Christian influences, scholars have found other religions in Tolkien’s works. Elizabeth Allen, in her chapter “Persian Influences in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” argues that the “Persian religion and its offshoot Mithraism provide the theology that undergirds Middle-earth” (Allen 1985, p. 189).
Allen traces the broad influences of the Persian sect of Mithraism throughout Tolkien’s work, concluding that “an understanding of the Persian sources of Tolkien’s work helps to make clearer this “natural theology” that undergirds, or rather overarches, Middle-earth” (Allen 1985, p. 202). In her study, Allen is mostly concerned with the Persian form of the cult of Mitra, incorporated in Mazdean Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism and Mithraism
Zoroaster or Zarathustra (ca. 1500-1000 BCE), a great prophet from Eastern Iran, was the spiritual leader on whose teachings the religion Zoroastrianism is based. It is sometimes called a Mazdean religion because the name of the chief deity is Ahura Mazda.
Within this religion, “Mithras is an angelic being who serves Ahura Mazda” (Allen 1985, p. 190). Unlike later iterations of the cult, Mazdean Zoroastrianism has a few written texts extant. There is a yast, or hymn, to Mithra included in the older Avesta. This hymn celebrates Mithra’s key characteristics: he is a god of light and the good in the battle between good and evil. This early form of Mithraism is the one which Allen focuses on primarily when making comparisons to The Lord of the Rings.
Mithraism grew and spread, and became especially prominent in the Roman world. However, beyond the previously mentioned yast, much of the information about the early cult is conjectural and the path between the Persian cult and the Roman cult is difficult to trace due to a lack of direct testimony.
The Roman cult of Mithras was a mystery cult popular in Rome and its northern provinces (from the Danube and Rhine rivers to England), making its deepest impact on the Roman world in the time of the Antonines (second and third centuries CE). Mystery cults are called such because only initiates had access to the knowledge the cult provided.
In the Roman world, mystery cults stood in stark contrast to the state religion. Participation in such cults was voluntary, unlike the mandated involvement in civic cults, but this meant that which cult a person joined was up to them. So, those looking for a more personal experience with a god might choose to seek out a mystery cult in addition to participating in the state religion.
Historians assumed that Roman Mithraism was originally a soldier cult due to the prominence of cultic sites found in forts in the north; however, the sheer number of mithraea, the worship space for the cult of Mithras, in cities like Ostia and Rome and their relative lack at military sites is evidence of a more widespread urban cult.
While earlier scholars saw no relation between the Persian cult of Mithra and the Roman mystery cult of Mithras, most modern Roman historians believe there is some connection between the two. The most useful suggestion for this examination is put forward by Gordon in his study of mystagogues, or “petty entrepreneur[s] or administrator[s] of the holy” who in his view are responsible for the spread of so-called mystery religions.
The mystagogue uses the “exotic” knowledge, in this case a cult from Persia, in order to influence others in his target audience, in this case Rome. This creates a synthesis of the old Persian belief with the new “capital’ of the mystagogue that espoused the religion, allowing for new Roman elements to be introduced to the ancient Persian religion.
While Allen’s observations about the similarities between Gandalf and the Persian Mitra are striking, Mithras of the Roman cult has more influence on the character of Gandalf than previously argued. Of particular interest is the battle on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, where Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog can be seen as a replication of the Roman Mithraic ritual of tauroctony.
Mithra-ndir and the tauroctony
Although Gandalf is prominent throughout the trilogy, the best summary description of him comes in Tolkien’s essay on the “Istari” in Unfinished Tales (p. 408):
But the last-comer was named among the Elves Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, for he dwelt in no place, and gathered to himself neither wealth nor followers, but ever went to and fro in the Westlands from Gondor to Angmar, and from Lindon to Lórien, befriending all folk in times of need. Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succors in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those who knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, and yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise, and thus far and wide he was beloved among all those that were not themselves proud. Mostly he journeyed unwearyingly on foot, leaning on a staff; and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf, “the Elf of the Wand.” For they deemed him (though in error, as has been said) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times work wonders among them, loving especially the beauty of fire; and yet such marvels he wrought mostly for mirth and delight, and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear.
From this description, as well as Tolkien’s notes and letters, it is clear that Tolkien conceived of Gandalf as an Odinic wanderer. Tolkien himself complains that the German illustrations of The Hobbit portray “Gandalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer I think of” (Letters no. 107, pg. 119).
Allen has noted that there are also many similarities between Gandalf, whom she calls the “the most highly visible peak of the Persian iceberg in The Lord of the Rings” (Allen 1985, p. 196), and the Persian conception of Mithras. As she shows, both are “angelic” messengers of a higher deity, are known as friends to all, and have strong associations with light and fire, fellowship, and fidelity (Allen 1985, pp. 196-198).
The most significant piece of evidence is, of course, Gandalf’s Elvish name, Mithrandir. In Elvish this name means “grey wanderer,” but many have already noted the phonetic similarity between Mithrandir and Mithras.
Tolkien was a linguist at heart, having created the lore of Middle Earth as a vehicle for his invented Elvish languages, Sindarin and Quenta. Because language and philology played such a large role in the creation of the narrative of the Lord of the Rings, the etymological roots for these fictional languages are not going to be happenstance.
The previously mentioned aspects of light, fellowship, and fidelity associated with the Persian god persisted into the Roman world, so they do not point to any special relationship between Gandalf and the Roman iteration of the cult of Mithras, the focus of this article.
However, Gandalf most resembles Roman Mithras (beyond his name) in his death and transformation. One of the most important myths of the cult of Mithras is that of the tauroctony, “the killing of the bull”. Little is known about this rite, since it is rarely referenced in ancient literature.
The importance of this ritual act to the practitioners of this mystery cult is clear in the iconography of the cult. This seems to have been the most important of Mithras’ acts to the practitioners of the Roman cult, as it was present in every mithraeum, an underground, cave-like banquet hall in which the members of the cult practiced their rituals. Each side had benches for banqueters, and at the end of the walkway there was usually a cult image, specifically of Mithras tauroctonos.
Mithraea were built underground and resembling caves (Clauss 2000, p. 42):
because Mithras killed the bull in a cave, [and so] his followers likewise performed the ritual reproduction of this saving act in a cave, or rather in a shrine which reproduced that cave.
Thousands of these places of worship, with accompanying symbology, have been found scattered throughout the Roman empire. In fact, one of the more famous ones is located in London, and was discovered in 1954, notably the same year that both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published. While none of his published notes and letters explicitly state that Tolkien himself visited the site, “widespread media coverage of the discoveries captured the imagination of the public” (London Mithraeum).
Mithras’ story of struggle and victory against the bull is echoed in Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. Gandalf does not make it out of Moria after the battle with the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-Dûm (FR Book II, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”, p. 371):
With a terrible cry, the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. “Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone
The Fellowship (and the readers) all assume at this point that Gandalf has died. However, this is not the case. He is not dead and is able to speak of his struggles to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in The Two Towers.
There are many points of contact between Gandalf’s narrative of his struggle with the Balrog, given by Gandalf in The Two Towers, and the mythic narrative suggested by cultic imagery. The first similarity is that both fights take place in a cave: Mithras’ in the bull’s cave, and Gandalf’s “far under the living earth” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 110) in the depths of the Mines of Moria. Some images suggest that Mithras chased the bull before slaying it, like Gandalf who “pursued [the Balrog], clutching at his heel” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 110). Therefore, just like Mithras, Mithrandir struggled in a cave with a creature and defeated it.
But, can a Balrog be parallel to a bull? The description of a Balrog in The Lord of the Rings seems to be intentionally vague. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Balrog is described as “a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater” (Book II, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”, p. 321). And yet this creature has some animalistic traits, including a “streaming mane” (FR Book II, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”, p. 321).
The question is whether a Balrog looks somewhat bull-like, in order to make the visual parallels even more striking. The name “Balrog” does sound superficially similar to the word “bull”, but they are not linked etymologically. The description of a Balrog is vague in the published trilogy, but The History of Middle Earth provides more information.
The best description of a Balrog comes in Tolkien’s drafts of the scene on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, preserved by Christopher Tolkien in The Treason of Isengard (p. 197):
A figure strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it. They would see the furnace-fire of its yellow eyes from afar its arms were very long; it had a red [?tongue]…Through the air it sprang over the fiery fissure. The flames leapt up to greet it and wreathed about it. Its streaming hair seemed to catch fire and the sword it held turned to flame. In its other hand it held a whip of many thongs.
However, Tolkien wrote a note above the description in the manuscript, which states: “Alter description of Balrog. It seemed to be of man’s shape, but its form could not be plainly discerned. It felt larger than it looked” (p. 199). Consequently, no definite description of a Balrog is available.
However, similarities between the Balrog and another figure from Greco-Roman mythology, the Minotaur, might provide helpful parallels. The Roman poet Ovid describes the Minotaur as semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem, “a half-bull man and half-man bull” (Ars Amatoria 2.24). This ambiguous description already links the Minotaur to the Balrog: neither is easily described.
The description of the Balrog as “of man shape, but larger” and with a “streaming mane” (FR Book II, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”, p. 321) suggests the same sort of half-animal, half-man creature as the Minotaur.
Another point of similarity between the Balrog and the Minotaur is the fact that both are located in a secret, underground lair. For the Minotaur, this is of course the center of the Labyrinth, built by Daedalus on Minos’ behalf to hide the Minotaur. While the mines of Moria are never described as a labyrinth, the Fellowship has to wander for quite a while in the dark to even reach the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, and Gandalf, when describing his pursuit of the Balrog, describes the “deepest delvings of the Dwarves” as full of “dark tunnels” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 110).
Even if the mines of Moria are not explicitly a labyrinth (Gloyn 2019, p. 193),
The fascination with the nature of identity marks the Minotaur’s manifestations, along with a strong sense of associated place which brings the labyrinth along for the ride. The underlying idea of a threatening not-quite-human occupying a threatening place creates the scope for the appearance of new monstrous tendrils[.]
The Minotaur even has Near-Eastern connections that give it a link to the bull of Mithraism. Ellen Roberts Young, in her exploration of the Minotaur in ancient art, notes that the pictorial evidence of the Minotaur seems to have been greatly influenced by the Near East, where bull-headed men are associated with the sun. Thus, even if the Balrog does not resemble a bull, his role as sacrificial victim and ties to the Minotaur suggest that he could be read as such.
Mystery and transformation
Gandalf’s struggle with the Balrog in Khazad-Dûm resembles the tauroctony not only in action but in result: both Gandalf and Mithras are transformed by their experience with their bull-like opponent. When we are first introduced to the wizard, he is described as follows (FR Book I, “A Long Expected Party”, p. 25):
An old man… He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.
This old man dressed in grey stands in stark contrast to the Gandalf that Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas meet in Fangorn, the Gandalf that has defeated the Balrog (TT, Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 102):
He sprang to his feet and leaped to the top of a large rock. There he stood, grown suddenly tall, towering above them. His hood and his grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone (…) His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand.
Gandalf’s clothes have changed from grey to white, and the same with his hair. Obviously, Gandalf’s battle and defeat of the Balrog has affected some sort of transformation upon the wizard.
The slaying of the bull was transformative for Mithras as well, in a few different ways. Clauss states that “the killing of the bull has nothing to do with mere slaughter or destruction, rather with transfiguration and transformation. The transformation is often depicted as having corn-ears or a cluster of grapes beneath the wound on the bull’s neck, or the tail ends in one or more ears of corn” (Clauss 2000, pp. 79-80).
Thus, the death of the bull is transformed into life. However, the slaying of the bull was transformative for Mithras himself as well. Altars found in mithraea often have a relief of the tauroctony on the obverse, and a feast on the reverse. This is because in the Mithraic mythology, after the slaying of the bull, Mithras and Sol (the Sun) have a feast in which they dine on the flesh of the bull. After dining with the Sun in the heavens, Mithras returns to earth.
Because of this, “above all [Mithras] was the solar deity who won the battle. As such he became a symbol of rebirth” (Laeuchli 1968, 78), since he comes back to earth as a deity. Thus, not only does life come from the death of the bull in the form of vegetation, but Mithras himself goes on to live a transformed life after his struggle with the bull.
In fact, the struggle with the Balrog was transformative for Gandalf in two Mithraic ways. The first is in terms of the levels of initiation that were present in the cult of Mithras. A mosaic floor from the mithraeum of Felicissimus in Ostia Antica which depicts the different grades of initiation of Mithraism. What is interesting about Gandalf’s transformation after defeating the Balrog is that he seems to “level up” from the penultimate to the final level of initiation.
The penultimate initiation level in Mithraism is the heliodromus, “sun-runner”. In the mosaic at Ostia, it is associated with the torch, a rayed crown, and a whip (Figure 2). Gandalf’s staff is a good parallel to the torch of the Heliodromus, especially since Gandalf actually uses it as a torch. In the Mines of Moria, Gandalf leads the way: “he held his staff aloft, and from its tip came a faint radiance” (FR Book II, “A Journey in the Dark”, p. 348).
After his encounter with the Balrog, however, Gandalf’s state resembles the final level of initiation, the pater. The pater is symbolized in the Mithraeum of Felicissimus by a Phrygian cap, libation bowl, staff, and sickle (Figure 3). As to the duties of the pater in the cult, “he is a Father to his initiates, who call themselves fratres, brothers, and guards over the interests of his community (defensor). He is also the magister sacrorum, the teacher whose wisdom is symbolized by a ring and a staff (ῥάβδος)” (Vermaseren 1963, p. 153).
Many descriptions of Gandalf the White can also be interpreted as representing this level of initiation. He is the leader of the Fellowship, a group of men who could be considered fratres. The staff especially is a marker of wizards in Tolkien’s world as a symbol of their power, as was true for traditions of wizards in other folk stories with which Tolkien was familiar – Saruman’s defeat is symbolized by the breaking of his staff (TT Book III, “The Voice of Saruman”). In addition, while it is not revealed until after Sauron is defeated, Gandalf is also a ring-bearer, as the previously cited description mentions.
This transformation from heliodromus to pater is the background of the second transformation that Gandalf experiences due to his struggle with the Balrog. After his ordeal with the Balrog, Gandalf is basically “reborn”. Gandalf, when hearing his name for the first time since his return, states “Gandalf… Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, pp. 102-103).
Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog basically killed him: “Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 111).
The phrase “sent back” suggests that Gandalf went elsewhere and a higher being deemed him worthy of coming back, and the fact that he was sent back “naked” and is now dressed in white suggests a transformation. Tolkien himself conceives of this as a rebirth and transformation (Letters 156, pp. 202-203):
For in his condition it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defense of his companions, less perhaps than for a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to “the Rules’… So Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned…Of course he remains similar in personality and idiosyncrasy, but both his wisdom and power are much greater. When he speaks he commands attention; the old Gandalf could not have dealt so with Théoden, nor with Saruman.
It is only through this sacrifice that Gandalf is able to gain the powers that allow him to fully orchestrate the downfall of Sauron. Indeed, Tolkien states he is the only one who could do so, and it is because of this transformation (Letters 156). But, Tolkien did not intend Gandalf’s rebirth to be a retelling of the Christ story (Letters 181, p. 237):
Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.
Thus, Gandalf experiences a transformation and rebirth, not a Christlike resurrection.
He is not transformed only into Gandalf the White, the pater, but also as the earthly incarnation of Mithras. Since Mithras himself wears the Phrygian cap, Clauss concludes that the pater “can thus be seen as the god’s earthly representative” (Clauss 2000, p. 137).
Tolkien makes sure to fill this description with flame imagery: Aragorn’s sword blazed in his hand; Legolas’ arrow disappears in a flash of flame; Gandalf’s eyes are compared to the rays of the sun; and when he puts his grey cloak back on, it’s as if the sun has gone (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 102).
It is especially interesting to note that the revelation of Gandalf the White is first greeted not by shouts of “Gandalf”, but by Legolas’ cry of “Mithrandir, Mithrandir” (TT Book III, “The White Rider”, p. 102) – the wizard is called not by his most common name, but by the one that ties him to the deity Mithras.
This is not just Legolas, the elf, using Gandalf’s elvish name to greet him. In Fellowship of the Ring, the only time Gandalf is called Mithrandir is by the elves in their mourning song for him in Lothlorien. He is not called Mithrandir again by anyone until this moment. The rest of the uses of Mithrandir in Two Towers are actually by Faramir, Captain of the Rangers of
Ithilien and Captain of the White Tower, and not in Gandalf’s presence but when talking about him to Frodo. In fact, the number of times he is called Mithrandir increases exponentially after his transformation – most notably when he appears during the Battle of Helm’s Deep with light behind him, a clear Mithraic moment. Thus, we see Gandalf fully embodied as a fiery Mithras-figure.
Why Mithraism? The cult and Christianity
These similarities between Gandalf and Mithras might seem odd to readers, especially those familiar with Tolkien’s statement about the religious nature of The Lord of the Rings. However, when one considers the relationship between Mithraism and Christianity, especially as it was conceived of when Tolkien was writing, these similarities start to make sense.
As Vermaseren has stated, “anyone who wishes to understand the development of early Christianity must know something of Mithras” (Vermaseren 1963, p. 11). Even in antiquity, “Christian writers had commented, often enough in harsh terms, on the remarkable similarities between their own religion and the cult of Mithras” (Clauss 2000, p. 168), especially since both religions were coming into being at around the same time.
However, the similarity that is the most striking, and got the most attention from ancient writers, is the communal meal celebrated by each – for the Christians, this is communion; for the Mithraists, this is the banquet held in the mithraeum that was meant to symbolically reproduce the meal Mithras and the Sun had after the bull was killed.
Both Justin Martyr (First Apology) and Tertullian (De Praescriptione Haereticorum) see this as the “wicked” pagans imitating Christianity. Because of statements like this, “the two religions have been considered rivals for the religious allegiance of the West” (Martin 1989, p. 2). Rivals or not, the similarities between these two religions are striking. While modern scholarship, including the recent post on Bad Ancient, has critically assessed the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, especially the idea that they were rivals, this is the type of theory that Tolkien, a scholar himself, would have been reading in the middle of the twentieth century. So even though it may not be the popular scholarly opinion now, this interpretation would have influenced Tolkien’s understanding of the cult. Thus, the supposed similarities between Mithraism, Mithras, and Mithrandir are not just coincidences but inherent in the fact that Tolkien designed The Lord of the Rings as a Christian work.
These connections between Mithraism and Christianity coupled with the previously mentioned fact that the London Mithraeum was unearthed the same year as the publication of both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, suggest that while these Mithraic resonances may not be intentional, they are strong, especially given the similarities between Christ and Mithras.
Tolkien, as previously mentioned, does not think of Gandalf’s rebirth as a Christ-story – he left the Christlike resurrection to his friend and contemporary, C.S. Lewis, whose Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia is clearly an intentional Christ figure, as Lewis himself says in his letters (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3). Mithras and Mithrandir have markedly different resurrections than Aslan and Christ: whereas Aslan and Christ die and are resurrected to bring salvation to their followers, Mithras and Gandalf are not really resurrected but are transformed and made more powerful by their “rebirth”.
In looking for a non-Christian model that would not clash with the inherent Christianity of the work, Mithras and Mithraism were a perfect solution. The similarities between Mithras and Christ and Mithraism and Christianity gave Tolkien the opportunity to write a transformation tale without daring to write the “Incarnation of God”.
Thus, Tolkien’s “Christian” work is scattered with references to a pagan religion, not in a contradictory sense, but in order to strengthen the already Christian character of the work.
I want to acknowledge my first Latin teacher, Mr. Pierre Habel of D’Evelyn Jr./Sr. High School in Littleton, CO. Without him, this article never could have come into being. At the beginning of my undergraduate career, he suggested Mithras and Gandalf. At the time, I was unable to fully explore the possibilities of this question, but the idea stuck and grew despite laying dormant for many years. Now that I have gained more knowledge and research skills to complete the project, I am forever grateful.