On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.
Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum
Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall!
‘Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all!’
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!
Roman bronze buckles from the Bloomberg excavations
As I child, I first learnt about Roman history from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth and her other Roman novels, and from Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, where young Dan and Una hear about Roman history from the centurion, Parnesius. Kipling knew how to write poetry which stirs the blood and I’ve always loved A Song to Mithras, which is from this book.
The London Mithraeum, photo by Liz Simpson.
So, when the opportunity came up to see the original 3rd century A.D. Roman Temple of Mithras, 7 metres underneath the Bloomberg SPACE, in the City of London, I jumped at it. Inside the 21st century building, you go down a deep staircase taking you back over 600 years to the Mithraeum which has been reconstructed on its authentic footprint using, as far as possible, the original stones and bricks.
The cult, which was secret and exclusively male, originated in Persia and spread quickly across the Roman Empire. The London Mithraeum may have been founded by an army veteran called Ulpius Silvanus, and, like all Mithraea, it represents the cave where the god/hero Mithras slew the sacred bull.
Small bronze bull decoration
Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat.
Our helmets scorch our foreheads, our sandals burn our feet.
Now in the ungirt hour – now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!
Close up of the altar and the Mithras image. Photo by Liz Simpson
We know little about Mithras and his cult. He was originally a Persian god of light and every Mithraeum had a statue of Mithras, a young man dressed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap, killing the sacred bull. He was associated with Sol, the sun god, and worshipped as a saviour who offers his followers rebirth into an immortal life. We also know that there were seven stages of initiation, and its followers had to master a sort of catechism and learn the correct questions and responses. The religion has some parallels with Christianity, and, for some time, it rivalled the early Christian church in its appeal.
Bronze cloak brooch from the Bloomberg excavations
The worship of Mithras was one of the mystery religions, which came from the east and appealed particularly to soldiers, especially those posted to the frontiers of the Roman Empire – there is a Mithraeum at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, for example.
Roman pottery lamps from the Bloomberg excavations
Mithras, God of the Sunset, low in the Western main –
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!
A resin copy of the stone head of Mithras, found in the Mithraeum. The original is in the British Museum
The sacred space of the Mithraeum itself looks much like a Christian church with a nave, aisles and columns. The ‘aisle space’ is also a seating area for 15-30 diners. Archaeologists have found hundreds of cherry stones, as well as animal bones – so feasting obviously featured in their rites, particularly in midsummer when cherries are ripe.
View of the Mithraeum from behind the altar
The Mithraeum, when I got down there, was dark, and it took time for my eyes adjust to the dimness. This was a deliberate and atmospheric invocation of what it might have been like to attend a Mithraic ceremony. A mist hung about it. Gradually, the mist cleared and we could hear an invocation, with the priest invoking Mithras and the worshippers responding, to the accompaniment of horns and sistrums. The invocation and responses certainly had a ‘Christian’ feel, helped by the fact that it was in Latin.
Small bronze bells from the Bloomberg excavations
Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great Bull dies,
Look on Thy children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou hast fashioned – all of them lead to the Light!
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright!
A wooden sole of a shoe, perhaps worn by one of the worshippers, from the Bloomberg excavations
Back upstairs, on the ground floor, there is a beautifully arranged display of over 600 of the 14,000 artefacts discovered during the various excavations, both the original one in 1952 and the recent excavations when Bloomberg re-excavated the site from 2010.
It’s certainly an atmospheric place to visit, and it’s free – though you have to book as numbers are strictly controlled. It’s an unusual, slightly spooky experience, with the eerie chanting deep underground where the Mithraeum once was, and the hustle and bustle of the modern City of London above. www.londonmithraeum.com
Photos, unless otherwise stated, by Elizabeth Hawksley
Poem: A Song to Mithras from Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, 1906
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