*Mitra (Proto-Indo-Iranian, nominative *Mitras) was an important Indo-Iranian divinity. Following the prehistoric cultural split of Indo-Aryan and Iranian cultures, names descended from *mitra were used for the following religious entities:
Both Vedic Mitra and Avestan Mithra derive from an Indo-Iranian common noun *mitra-, generally reconstructed to have meant "covenant, treaty, agreement, promise." This meaning is preserved in Avestan miθra "covenant." In Sanskrit and modern Indo-Aryan languages, mitra means "friend," one of the aspects of binding and alliance.
The Indo-Iranian reconstruction is attributed to Christian Bartholomae, and was subsequently refined by A. Meillet (1907), who suggested derivation from the Proto-Indo-European root *mei "to exchange."
A suggested alternative derivation was *meh "to measure" (Gray 1929). Pokorny (IEW 1959) refined Meillet's *mei as "to bind." Combining the root *mei with the "tool suffix" -tra- "that which [causes] ..." (also found in man-tra-, "that which causes to think"), then literally means "that which binds," and thus "covenant, treaty, agreement, promise, oath" etc. Pokorny's interpretation also supports "to fasten, strengthen", which may be found in Latin moenia "city wall, fortification", and in an antonymic form, Old English (ge)maere "border, boundary-post".
Meillet and Pokorny's "contract" did however have its detractors. Lentz (1964, 1970) refused to accept abstract "contract" for so exalted a divinity and preferred the more religious "piety." Because present-day Sanskrit mitra means "friend," and New Persian mihr means "love" or "friendship," Gonda (1972, 1973) insisted on a Vedic meaning of "friend, friendship," not "contract".
Meillet's analysis also "rectified earlier interpretations" that suggested that the Indo-Iranian common noun *mitra- had anything to do with the light or the sun. When H. Lommel suggested that such an association was implied in the Younger Avesta (>6th c. BCE), that too was conclusively dismissed. Today, it is certain that "(al)though Miθra is closely associated with the sun in the Avesta, he is not the sun" and "Vedic Mitra is not either."
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