Is he still the same god?

Greg Woolf

A young god sits astride a bull. It has been forced to its knees and its head has been pulled back so the god can hold a dagger to its throat, or to its neck, or its shoulder. In some versions he has already plunged the dagger in and drops of blood have begun to fall to the ground. The god wears a billowing cloak and a distinctive bonnet. Other animals have come to help him in his attack on the bull. A raven (often) and usually a dog and sometimes a scorpion too. Above him are the sun and the moon; on either side, two attendants: one holding a torch upwards, the other down. Sometimes the scene is framed by an arch on which the signs of the zodiac are displayed. Sheaves of wheat spring up from the body of the bull or his blood. Sometimes the whole scene seems to be played out underground. But in other versions the god and the bull are portrayed in the round, or beneath the stars.

A third-century Italian fresco of Mithras
A third-century Italian fresco of Mithras

Hundreds of versions of this scene are known from the northern half of the Roman Empire. They were carved as reliefs on slabs of local stone or crude altars or sculpted from the finest marble. They were pressed onto pottery vessels before they were fired, and inscribed with great care on tiny metal amulets. Images of the young god have been found in the windy temple at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall and in the wreckage of the Walbrook shrine now beneath Bloomberg’s European HQ in the City of London. Many have turned up in the Rhineland carved out of local sandstones. They were common in the forts and cities along the Danube in Roman times. Beautiful examples from the city of Rome have been found. They were the centrepieces of shrines built in private houses and imperial baths, and there was even an image of Mithras at one end of the Circus Maximus. Some of the finest examples from Rome are now housed in the world’s great museums thanks to the energy – or brigandage – of Grand Tourists. Images of Mithra begins with two exceptional marbles now in the British Museum, the Standish tauroctony and the Townley tauroctony.

Tauroctony is a modern coinage – it just means the killing of a bull – but it does sum up what is distinctive about this endlessly repeated religious trope, the theme on which a vast fugue of variations were worked. Dogs, scorpions, ravens come and go. There are tauroctonies that seem densely entangled in astrological symbols, and others like the British Museum pair which hardly allude to them. Attendants, sun and moon and all the rest are equally variable. But at the heart of the Roman cult of Mithras there is always the young god and the bull. What did it mean?

There have been many theories, neatly summarised and fairly assessed by the team of scholars who have put this volume together as part of a collaborative project between the British Museum and the University of Oxford, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Yet no one clue seems to explain the images. All agree that the images of Mithras were central. No shrines to the god are known which do not have some version of the trope. There is no sign that there was some canonical myth which all – in their different ways – illustrate. No allegorical readings command wide support. If there is a code it has resisted more than a century of determined efforts to break it. Time and again we return from vain attempts to get at the meaning behind the image to look back at the image itself. Perhaps the meaning is, after all, on the surface rather than behind it.

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