This weekend I fancied getting out and going to a museum, and luckily living near London there are lots to choose from! A friend suggested the London Mithraeum, a free museum housing the ruins of the Roman temple of Mithras. Mithras is a God I had vaguely heard of, but knew absolutely nothing about, so it immediately piqued my interest.
The museum itself is free, although it isn't a museum as such; there are the ruins, three interactive stands which tell you about the temple and Mithras himself, an audio talk, and an immersive experience. The whole thing took less than half an hour to complete, but was truly fascinating.
The temple was built around 240AD and dedicated to the young God Mithras - hence why it is called a 'Mithraeum'. The worshippers were an all male cult which spread across the Roman empire between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. By the 5th century AD, the temple had been abandoned, and was later repurposed as a temple to Bacchus. The ruins aren't exactly reconstructed in its original place; they were actually moved, and then moved again, although they are now very close to the original site of the ruins. Worshippers would have gathered in a room attached to the Mithraeum before entering the temple through a narrow doorway. Three steps led down to a nave, and at the end of the temple was a raised dias where the Pater would have led ceremonies. Timber benches were placed in the higher side aisles, and a well was also present in the temple, the water from which would have been used in rituals. Seven pairs of columns separated the nave and the aisles, and it is believed that these columns could have represented the seven grades of initiation into the cult; Corax (raven), Nymphus (male bride), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (courier of the sun) and Pater (father).
It is believed that the cult worshipped Mithras in the temple for roughly 80 years. When they abandoned the Mithraeum, a group of sculptures were buried beneath the floor, near the door. These were clearly placed there with care and respect, and remain some of the finest examples of Roman sculpture ever found in Britain.
Within the temple there were two main artefacts discovered which give us an insight to the God, and this pieced together with artefacts found across Europe from other Mithraeums tell us all we know about this deity, although that in itself isn't much. It is believed that he emerged as an entirely 'new' deity, but his cult borrowed reconisable motifs, such as his manner of dress, from eastern cultures.
Mithras was often depicted wearing a soft, conical cap which appears to be of eastern origin, possibly Persian. It is very similar to the caps given to Roman slaves on their release from bondage. He is typically shown looking away as he slays the sacred bull, or looking up, perhaps to the sun God Sol.
Mithras and his tussle with the sacred bull is shown on the second artefact found in the temple, the Tauroctony. It would have been the central icon to the cult, given prominence in the temple. He is shown in his distinctive cap atop the bull, his head turned away as he stabs the bull in the neck. It is unknown whether this scene shows a battle or a sacrifice, but either way, it depicts the young God as a hero.
There are other symbols surrounding this depiction. These include the twelve signs of the zodiac, and twin torch bearers either side of him. One of the torch bearers, Cautes, holds a burning torch upwards whilst the other - Cautopates - holds a nearly extinguished torch downwards. It is believed that these represent opposites - sunset and sunrise, life and death, or may refer to the constellation Gemini.
There are also other animals depicted in this scene. A dog licks the blood from the bulls wound whilst a snake reaches up to also join the feast. A scorpion is shown attacking the bulls testicles, whilst a raven, believed to be the messenger of Sol looks down on it all. Scholars believe that this may refer to myths about creation and fertility, or that the animals represent different constellations. Some believe that the killing of the bull represents a ritual sacrifice, with the bulls blood providing nurishment for the world, thus considering it a 'creation myth'.
We also have the depiction of two other deities on the Tauroctony. The naked sun God Sol rides his horse drawn chariot into the sky, whilst a fully clothed Luna - the Goddess of the moon - drives her bull-pulled chariot downwards.
Finally, we have what is believed to be a depiction of the seasons; two Gods with wings on their foreheads, one youthful and shaven believed to represent the warmer months, and one old and bearded believed to represent the colder months.
The Tauroctony is accompanied by an inscription which translates as 'Ulpis Silvans, veteran of the second Augustan legion, paid his vow: he was initiated at Orange [France]'. It is possible that this man was the founder of the temple.
There are no texts that explain the Tauroctony and scholars continue to debate its meaning. Others have been found with small variations in imagery across what was once the Roman empire, signifying regional differences in beliefs and rituals.
As for how, or why Mithras was worshipped, this again is largely known. Archaeological evidence suggests that worshippers consumed chicken, wine, and honey, which was also used in cleansing rituals. Evidence also indicates elaborate initiation ceremonies which may have included chanting, shouting, music, and the burning of pine cones as a form of incense.
So whilst Mithras remains a mystery, if you are in central London and get the chance to visit the London Mithraeum, I highly recommend you go and check out these fascinating remains!
The Weekly Witch:
Once I week I talk about something 'witchcraft' related I have done with my week. How we incorporate witchcraft into our every day lives is always a topic that has interested me, so I wanted to start this blog to explore it further!