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Mithraeums and the Cult of Mithras - by Joseph Manning


- Eleusinian Mysteries – mystery cult dedicated to the Greek goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone

- Zoroastrianism – one of the world’s oldest, continuously practiced religions that originate from modern-day Iran

- Mithraeum – temple dedicated to the god Mithras

- Material Culture – physical evidence of the ancient world (i.e. not literature)

- Byzantine – the Byzantine Empire was the remnants of the Roman empire in Greece and modern-day Turkey after the fall of Rome

- Mithraism – alternate name for the Cult of Mithras

The Greco-Roman world was filled with many gods that different communities worshipped and sacrificed to in various combinations. However, within the polytheistic ancient world, different religious schools called mystery cults appeared. These mystery cults were religious groups dedicated to a specific deity or religious figure and, as they were a ‘mystery’, they were closed groups that kept their rituals secret. Only those who were initiated could find out what went on within and granted whatever spiritual rewards the cult offered. If you want to find out about one of the most famous Greek mystery cults, the Eleusinian mysteries, there are some articles on it here on Academus. In this article, we turn our eyes to the Roman world to explore the cult of Mithras.

Mithras was originally an ancient Iranian god, found in other religions such as Zoroastrianism, who somehow came to be known and worshipped by the Romans. We have near to no literary evidence on what the cult of Mithras exactly was, given that all participants were sworn to secrecy and so could not write any details down. Instead, we must look to material culture and figure out what we can from the remains left behind. All across what was the Roman empire, mysterious temples referred to as Mithraeums can be found. Thanks to consistent and specific iconography and layout found within these Mithraeums, we can not only identify when one has been found but also get some idea as to what went on within the associated cult.

Relief of Mithras – depicting the slaying of the bull, the sun god, the moon god, animals, the zodiac, and other small details
Relief of Mithras – depicting the slaying of the bull, the sun god, the moon god, animals, the zodiac, and other small details

Although the name of the god is clearly from ancient Iran, the evidence we have indicates there is no other correlation between the two versions of Mithras. The specific and detailed iconography and imagery within the Mithraeums do not correspond with what is known about the Iranian and Zoroastrian Mithras. One such specific piece of iconography found in every Roman Mithraeum is a relief of the titular god slaying a bull within a cave. It is unclear whether it’s a battle or a sacrifice, but this image is held in the central niche of every Mithraeum, indicating it is central to the cult's worship. Typically, other elements are also included around the relief, such as small animals, the Roman gods of the sun and the moon, and usually some form of zodiac imagery. Although precisely what all this means is unknown, we can assume that the cult likely had something to do with the passage of the sun or the change of the seasons, given the sun and moon gods’ presence and the 12 zodiac signs which the sun roughly passes through over the course of the year.

Despite our understanding of the beliefs of the cult being limited, the structure of the Mithraeum itself gives us a more substantial idea of what went on within. Long and narrow, the temple was built like a small banquet hall, with seating and benches. Additionally, traces of food remains as well as some cutlery have been found at the site, making it clear that dining was central to the worship of the god. The cheap walling and lack of windows seem to mirror the cave setting found in the relief, indicating that the space was designed to incorporate some level of re-enactment of the central myths and beliefs. The lack of windows could also be an attempt to separate those inside from the outside world, allowing for a more liminal and spiritual setting as they take part in the seemingly cosmic rituals of Mithras. Also found within the Mithraeums are dedications. Typically, they seem to be from soldiers and so, especially given the spread of such a cult, it is believed that these men formed the majority of members.

Mithraeum from Ostia – either side spaces for seating and dining can be seen
Mithraeum from Ostia – either side spaces for seating and dining can be seen

Although most of our information comes from material culture, some limited literary sources help provide some light onto what else can be found. For example, in a Mithraeum found in Italy, strange symbols can be seen depicted in a mosaic. From the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, we know that membership had different levels which likely corresponded to the imagery found in the Italian mosaic. Such levels of membership included the ‘bridegroom’, indicated by a veil or diadem, the ‘lion’, indicated by a thunderbolt or laurel wreath, and the ‘father’, indicated by a shepherd’s staff or ruby ring. This is supported by some graffiti found elsewhere which lists the members of that Mithraeum at the time, all men and likely mostly soldiers, as well as the level they were.

Overall, the cult of Mithras is sadly still largely a mystery to us today. The secret myths and rituals performed within these strange temples are likely lost forever. However, thanks to the study of material culture, we have been able to literally unearth details and elements of this otherwise unknown cult to get some understanding of what Mithraists believed. One of these Mithraeums can be found and visited (for free) in London, so if you want to see for yourself the remains of Mithraism then go check it out.

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