Temples of Mithras – Pursuing the Mysteries of Mithras
The Temple – Mithraeum - was the indoor meeting place for pursuing the Mysteries of Mithras. Remains of Mithraea (plural of Mithraeum) can be seen across many parts of the early first millennium CE Roman Empire – several websites are referenced in the Acknowledgments section. Locations such as Mackwiller, Alsace, France; Aquincum, Near Budapest, Hungary; Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales; Carrowburgh (Brocolitia), Northumberland, England; Duino, Trieste, Italy; Fertorakos, Hungary; Walbrook, London, England; Ostia Antica, near Rome, Italy; Rudchester (Vindobala), Northumberland, England and Savaria, Szombathely, Hungary can be visited but in addition other Mithraea are under current churches and many Mithraic altars and statues are in museums.
The Mithraeum would have been suitably laid out and decorated with statues and paintings to enable the followers to gather, to worship, to be talked through (and prospectively walked through) the iconography to understand the Mysteries of Mithras and to progress through the Grades. From remains particularly in Italy, Germany and England there is evidence of specific designs and a regard for compass orientation which has huge significance when considering the relationship of the Mysteries with astrological and astronomical aspects. These were temples – places of spiritual devotion and for instruction. The Mithraeum was created and constructed as a “virtual universe”.
The temples generally were underground or partially underground, sometimes beneath other buildings. Some have also been in caves. For the built temples the structure can be likened to a cave (of significance as Mithras was said to have been born from rock in a cave) but also a model of the macrocosm. Having a semi-circular vertical profile, the typical built structure then also became cave-like. On either side of the long centre line of the Mithraeum (they were rectangular) there were benches and at one end the iconography of the Tauroctony – the bull slaying by Mithras (see below). Being enclosed they were private but something must have enticed people to want to understand the Mysteries; nothing external is apparent from excavations so far – this suggests word of mouth. A detail in several of these temples is niches for statues speculatively for Cautes & Cautopates (Mithras’s companions) and other Gods.
Tauroctony showing Mithras with his associates – Cautes & Cautopates.
Mithraea may not just be the plural of Mithraeum - perhaps there was some significance where several are located nearby one another. By challenging the description above, which tends to suggest a standard Mithraeum, could some have been grouped by location each serving a differing but complementary purpose? Could there be a hierarchical structure to Mithraea in a particular location (explaining, for example, the high number in Ostia, Italy) – like Christian churches and their relationship with cathedrals? Maybe not all Mithraea catered for all grades?
← The Mithraeum at Carrawburgh, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland
← The House of the Mithraeum of the Painted Walls, Ostia, Italy – photo courtesy of Jan Theo Bakker.
The Mithraeum of the Seven Gates, Ostia, Italy. →
The London Mithraeum (Walbrook) was discovered in the 1950s with the temple foundations being moved wholesale to a nearby location. The artefacts are in the Museum of London. The statues are collectively dated as being carved between 130 and 200 CE in the Hadrianic (117 to 138) and Antonine (138 to 192) periods. When found, sculptures had been buried in and near the temple. Coin and pottery evidence suggests 240 to 250 for the building of the temple with the temple in use until 350 with the monuments being buried around 320 to 330.
Some Walbrook statuary is made from imported materials (typically Carrara marble) carved to a high standard, other material is local to the UK (typically limestone probably from the Cotswolds area) and is more roughly carved. The time lag between the carving of, for example, the Carrara marble statuary and their appearance in the Walbrook Mithraeum suggests these items had previous use, were carved in Italy and imported for use in the temple. One item in particular appears to be made from Carrara marble but as an imported slab carved in the UK. The “relief of Mithras Tauroctonos” seems to have been produced specifically for the Walbrook Mithraeum maybe as late as during the first half of the third century. This date is also suggested for the “locally” produced items made, arguably, specifically for Walbrook.
Beyond Britannia, several Mithraea (from a number of sources) have known or estimated construction dates, such as these:-
· Dura-Eoropos, Syria has an initial date of 168, a rebuild of 210 and extension of 240; a tablet of 210 offers salutation to Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta.
It is speculated that the Caesarea Maritimia Mithraeum in the Roman province of Syria Palestina was built toward the end of the 1st Century.
Several statues (including Cautes, Cautopates and Aion) are in the Louvre, Paris from the Sidon, Syria Mithraeum built in the 2nd century.
· Ptuj, Slovenia is mid-2nd Century.
· A Mithraeum was built in Bordeaux, France around the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd Century.
· The Friedburg, Germany example is dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd Century as is pottery found within the temple at Mundelsheim, Germany.
· Fertorakos Mithraeum in Austria was constructed by soldiers from the Carnuntum legion at the beginning of the 3rd Century.
· The Mitreo delle Pareti Dipinte, Ostia, Italy dates to the second half of the 2nd century as does the Mitreo degli Animali and the Mitreo delle Sette Sfere. The Mitreo delle terme di Mitra dates to the first half of the 3rd century. The Mithraeum of the Snakes also at Ostia dates to the first half of the 2nd century.
Another Ostia temple – Mitreo Aldobrandini – dates to the end of the 2nd century.
Dating from the beginning of the 2nd century is the Mitreo di Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Campania, Italy.
The second half of the 3rd century is the date given to Mitreo del Circo Massimo in Rome and Mitreo di Felicissimus at Ostia. There are many more Mithraea in and near Rome and nearby coastal areas – especially Ostia. In fact there are 73 monuments / temples in Italy listed at www.mithraeum.eu .
· At Merida, Spain a Mithraeum existed about 155; Mithraic monuments have been found at several sites in Spain dating from the first half of the 2nd century. The Mitreo de Lugo, Galicia is dated to the early 3rd century – Lugo’s altar is dated to 211 to 217 mentioning Mithras and also the VII Gemina Legion.
Near Cordoba is the Mithraeum at Puenti Genil dating from the middle of the 2nd century to beginning of the 3rd.
The Mitreo dels Munts, Tarragona dates to the 2nd century.
· At Martigny, Switzerland a Mithraeum was discovered in 1933 and is preserved in the basement of newly built apartments – around 1750 years later.
The earliest dates for Mithraeum construction in Britannia are in the early 3rd century i.e. from 200. Beyond Britannia they are earlier, ranging from the beginning of the 2nd to the second half of the 3rd i.e. between 100 and 299 but generally the first half of the 3rd – the early 200s.
Based on time period and location, any of the Mithraea mentioned above could have been the direct or indirect source of knowledge of the Mysteries of Mithras as practiced in Britannia – and could have provided the structural design and layout for an indoors Mithraeum in Britannia. The nearest examples of Mithraea to NE Scotland (the Pictland area we are considering) are by Hadrian’s Wall such as Rudchester (Vindobala) and Carrawburgh (Brocolitia).
When considering Mithraic Statues and Symbols five broad areas appear – Enticement, the Tauroctony, associated statues & paintings, other images of Mithras and the Initiation Grades.
Roman Mithraism was a mystery cult with the teaching, initiation, religion, astronomy and astrology being well concealed. Its buildings were less easy to hide but entry was restricted. None of this would have encouraged involvement – quite the opposite – but for the cult to exist potential new members needed to know something about it to want to become involved. There arguably needed to be some form of enticement - at minimum giving a taster, at best giving a realisation of a unique selling point such as a spiritual home for life. Perhaps handed down knowledge (from an established initiate) or more general public knowledge of what the cult might offer may have attracted a new member. An expectation that certain groups could or should become members could also have been a draw – for example the cult was especially popular within the military. The hope of a hereafter could have been an enticement – a particular attraction to military personnel often faced with a shorter than usual life expectancy. None of these is shown as a statue or symbol as such but presumably was passed on by word of mouth. The physical presence of a Mithraeum (with a supposition of what it might contain or what those contents might represent) could have been the nearest there was to visible enticement.
This “bull-slaying” scene (real or symbolic) was central to (and in) the design of a Mithraeum and positioned to clearly be seen by those in the building – it was not physically hidden but interpretation would have required guidance. The contents always featured the cloaked, Phrygian capped Mithras stabbing the bull with, variously, his companions - Cautes & Cautopates, snake, dog, scorpion, cup, sun, moon, zodiac, representation of the four winds, stars on Mithras’ cloak, ears of corn and other carvings.
Photo Courtesy of Museum of London.
Associated Statues & Paintings
Either in Mithraea or nearby wide ranges of statues have been found including Magna Mater / Cybele, Attis, Hercules, Venus, Mercury, Minerva, Serapis, Dionysius etc. and paintings of Europa, Fortuna, Genius etc. Some of these may have been associated directly with initiation grades, others incidental to the core of the Mithras mysteries, still others unrelated to the Mithras cult but associated to facilitate acceptance of Mithraism or they may have belonged to religious beliefs that were running in parallel. Whichever category applied, all required some form of decoding for meaning and relevance. The Great North Museum in Newcastle, England houses, from Hadrian’s Wall, statues of Apollo, Jupiter, Minerva etc – a choice of Gods - and there are altars to Mithras dedicated by Legion personnel dating seemingly from the third century CE. Some temple locations were places for the worship of what have been termed “local” Gods typically Celtic as well as Roman.
Other Images of Mithras
Although Mithras is generally seen within the Tauroctony, there are statues with him hunting on horseback, catching the bull, at birth with the globe in his hand, riding a bull, on foot with bow and arrow, being born from the rock etc.
These grades or rites and associated symbols can clearly be seen in Mithraea in Ostia, Italy. In summary they are:-
Grade Associated Planet Symbols
1 Corax (raven) Mercury Raven, caduceus, small beaker
2 Nymphus (male bride) Venus Oil lamp, diadem, torch, veil, mirror, bee
3 Miles (soldier) Mars Lance, helmet, soldier’s bag
4 Leo (lion) Jupiter Fire shovel, rattle, thunderbolt, honey
5 Perses (Persian) Moon Harpe (curved sword), Persian dagger, sickle, scythe, crescent moon with star, honey
6 Heliodromus Sun Torch, seven-rayed crown, whip
(Courier of the sun)
7 Pater (Father) Saturn Libation bowl, sickle of Saturn, staff
and ring, Phrygian cap
A complete ladder can be considered to start from a base of “0” rising in seven steps (the Mithraic Grades) to the eighth – the Celestial Sphere, the Milky Way – then through it to Heaven, the home of the soul. The belief was that at birth an individual’s soul came from beyond the Celestial Sphere and at death travelled back, via the Planets. All told, therefore, from an earthly perspective there are ten levels from “enticement” at “0” to “soul return” at “9”.
Each object seen in a typical Tauroctony statue can be associated with a skyward view element (Planet, Constellation etc). This may assist decoding of Pictish Symbols.
Tauroctony component with corresponding item in a skywards view:-
Cave - the Universe; Sol - Sun; Luna - Moon; Cautes & Cautopates - Gemini;
Bull - Taurus; Lion - Leo; Dog - Canis Minor, Canis Major; Scorpion - Scorpius; Snake - Draco, Hydra - Serpens; Raven - Corvus; Wheat Ear - Spica; Cup - Crater.