People who know nothing about Roman Catholicism still know at least one thing about the crown worn by a bishop. They see it any time they play chess. The crown — called a mitre — is split.
Pope Francis is a bishop (of Rome). So, we have been seeing a lot of his crown during his visit to the states. Why is the mitre shaped as it is — a high head-dress which is split?
This shape has been so “Christianized” (signifying “bishop”) that we may not realize its origins precede Christianity and — perhaps all the more surprising — are pagan in meaning and design.
In the ancient empire of Babylonia (centered in Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq), one of the gods people believed in was a god of fish. In an empire headquartered between two rivers, fishing was important. The god’s name was Dagon. People relied on Dagon to give them good fortune when fishing.
Thus, court officials wore a headpiece that was shaped like a fish’s open mouth. If you look at a mitre not straight on but from the side, this design is easier to recognize — a fish’s open mouth.
Over time, the headdress simply came to stand for an imperial official — in any Middle Eastern kingdom (like the Byzantine Empire).
As Christianity grew, it built an hierarchy — bishops supervising elders, who were running congregations — and the higher-ups wore the ornaments of empire. The imperial headdress of pagan kingdoms came to be worn by the followers of Jesus.
“Conversion” is one job of any religion. Roman Catholicism has converted an ancient, pagan headdress to its own meaning. Other denominations which have bishops — Lutheran, Episcopalian, Orthodox — likewise use the mitre to signify a bishop.
Of course, a basic, foundational reason for an official to wear any high headdress at all is — it makes the person look taller! It’s the same thinking when British and French soldiers of the Waterloo era used to march into battle wearing a bearskin headpiece. Every soldier looked (and must have felt) eight feet tall !
When we see the throngs in a cathedral where the Pope is progressing down the aisle surrounded by church officials, we can still pick him out — because of his high headpiece.