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.

Greek and Roman religion depended on images, quite literally: there were no sacred laws or scripture and certainly no organised church or priesthood to police practice and correct error. It was in their images and their names that the gods persisted for at least two thousand years from the Bronze Age to the purges organised by monotheist emperors. Mithras may have been a newcomer in the classical Mediterranean, but he could depend on generations trained in the use of images. It is our lack of that training that makes the tauroctonies so difficult to understand, at least to our satisfaction, which is not necessarily the same as theirs.

In the cities of the ancient Mediterranean, images made the ancient gods present, communicated their personalities and their powers. Statues of the gods were carried through the streets, attended banquets and games and performed occasional miracles. Pocket versions sat in household shrines or were carried as charms. Cities put the images of their patron deities on their coinage. The rich placed busts of the gods in their gardens. Gods often looked up from the mosaic floors of dining rooms, or out from the painted walls of rich houses. The gods were visible wherever people looked, and at night they appeared in dreams. A Roman book of dream symbols offers advice on what to make of their nocturnal appearances. There were places where the sick slept in temple sanctuaries in the hope that a god would visit them in the night and suggest a cure. Many images were quite crude but the complexity and the elaboration of Mithraic iconography surpassed anything that had been done with the medium before. He was the last and finest gasp of a religious system based on vision, on epiphany, on things seen rather than unseen.

Mithraic tauroctonies first appear in the early second century AD. Maybe none were made after the end of the fourth. This was one of the last great religious projects not to bring with it sacred texts. Jews, Christians, Manicheans, Zoroastrians and Muslims were focused on the written word although they knew – and feared – the power of images. Most of the late antique monotheisms indulged in occasional outbursts of iconoclasm. Many tauroctonies have had to be reconstructed from hundreds of fragments, and others seem to have been deliberately hidden. When we gaze reflectively at the calm young god in the moment of bull slaughter, we are looking beyond the religions of the book, back to a different order of cosmic knowledge. That much is clear. But seeing is not the same thing as understanding.

Earlier generations of scholars often tried to interpret the images as products of a system of belief rather like a modern religion. This has often been labelled ‘Mithraism’ although there is no ancient justification for that term. Mithraism was conceived of as a package of notions and rituals – again on the model of a modern religion – held and practised by people called ‘Mithraists’, another term with no ancient authority. The fact that some ancient texts speak of mysteries and that some shrines were built underground encouraged the idea that Mithraism was a kind of secret society, or an ancient freemasonry. The word ‘cult’ is sometimes used in a way it isn’t for the worship of Apollo or Minerva, Mercury or Jupiter. Reconstructions of ‘Mithraism’ – of what ‘Mithraists’ believed and ‘Mithraists’ did – drew on a mass of evidence found all over the northern provinces of the empire.

Various versions of Mithraism were reconstructed. Some were heavily astrological, almost gnostic, and particular tauroctonies were interpreted as holding the key to particular kinds of cosmic revelation. Others focused on the mysteries. Initiation rituals called mysteria were in fact associated with many gods, especially with Demeter and the Maiden, the Great Gods of Samothrace, Isis, Cybele and Bacchus. In most cases an initiate would prepare for days, fasting, abstaining from sex, maybe performing sacrifices, and then would have some sacred objects or truths revealed to him or her. Usually it was a one-off experience, if sometimes such an intense one that it stayed with the initiates for the rest of their lives. Cicero was initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis just outside Athens and it had a profound emotional effect on him. Reconstructions of Mithraism as a ‘mystery religion’, on the other hand, imagined postulants passing through initiation after initiation, each one leading to a new and higher grade and perhaps to deeper or truer revelations. Salvation, fertility and revelation feature in many reconstructions. Most of these elements – initiations, astrology, salvation narratives and so on – were quite common in ancient religions. But it is fantastically difficult to tell what was really central to the worship of Mithras and what was an add-on. There are very few ancient accounts and some at least look like they are little more than guesswork.

Modern writers have not always been able to choose between finding Mithraism very strange, and seeing it as just one more variation in the rich world of ancient polytheism. Interpretations that emphasise the strange tend to latch onto the fact that almost everyone involved seems to have been male – Roman families, villages and cities tended to worship together – and point out that the costume of the god and his attendants look like those of eastern barbarians. Those that stress the familiar point out how well some aspects of Mithraism fitted with Roman society: it was hierarchical, it attracted soldiers, imperial slaves and even senators; it set animal sacrifice at its heart. One influential view presents Mithraism as the product of deliberate hybridisation, a customised blend of Babylonian star lore, Greek mysteries and Roman traditions of sacrifice, lightly exoticised with Persian names and costumes, but perfectly suited to Roman tastes. This is more or less a 180 degree turn from the way things were imagined a century before, when Mithraism was thought of as a fundamentally alien idea spreading through the Mediterranean world at the expense of traditional cults.

Some Mithraisms are beguiling, others fantastic. Yet they share two weaknesses. The first is the presumption that Mithraism and Mithraists existed in the way Judaism and Jews or Christianity and Christians do today. This seems pretty unlikely given that in the Roman period almost no texts refer even to Judaism or Christianity in this way. There is no sign at all that those who worshipped Mithras did not worship many other gods as well, no sign that their beliefs about the divine were very different from those of their fellows, no sign that anyone ever made the cult of Mithras an important part of their identity.

The second weakness is that all these reconstructions have been created by lumping. Lumpers presume a basic commonality to the worship of Mithras, from place to place and century to century. Our evidence is so sparse that it’s tempting to complete a mosaic from Ostia with graffiti from Dura Europos on the Euphrates, add a scatter of Latin inscriptions and then declare that all Mithraists underwent the same series of initiations on their way to learning the same truths. Perhaps they did. Yet when we look closer at the images of Mithras, all sorts of local differences appear. Can we be sure his worship was not as varied as the worship of Mercury or Juno? How could one inspiration have spawned hundreds of local versions? Paul’s letters show just how many local variants there were in the Christian community a generation after the founder’s death, and that was across a much tighter diaspora held together by kinship, travelling apostles and letters.

The authors of Images of Mithra are occasionally tempted to lump, but almost always end up splitting. They have good reasons for it. They have cast their net very wide, far beyond the Mediterranean to Syria and Iran, Afghanistan and northern India. The old idea that Mithraism was an invasive eastern religion is certainly wrong. Nothing like the western material appears in the god’s eastern realms, not even the slaughtering of a bull. Even his name is different: Mihr in Middle Persian, Mioro or Miiro in Bactrian (one of the main languages of the Kushan Empire that ruled both sides of the Hindu Kush in the early centuries AD), Mitra in Sanskrit. His earliest appearances were in the Vedas and in a treaty signed between the Hittites and the Mitanni, two of the major powers that fought for control of the Near East in the second millennium BC. Images of Mithra doesn’t devote much time to his Bronze Age avatars, perhaps because we have no images of the god from that far back. Spreading the net wide takes us to places where iconography seems less central than it did in the Roman world. Our earliest Mithras is a god who guarantees pacts and treaties. This is how he appears in Zoroastrian inscriptions, too, where he is an angelic supporter of Ahura Mazda, the god of light, and so an opponent of Ahriman, the spirit of destruction.

A few altars from the west were pierced so that flames might shine through behind the image of the god, and in the subterranean shrines – called spelaea (caverns) in Italy – everything must have taken place by torchlight. One of his Roman titles was the Undefeated God, which comes quite close to the Undefeated Sun whose worship was popularised by the Emperor Aurelian in an age of terrible military crises. East of the Mediterranean, Mithras’ association with the light and with the sun is even more common. Images from Syria and Bactria show him with the rays of the sun shining from behind his face. On the vast mountain-top shrine of Nemrud Dag in southern Turkey he is portrayed this way with the label Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes. Helios, the Greek name for the sun, also appears as an alternative name for him on coins from Bactria. Ancient Afghanistan and Syria were two places whose rulers seem consciously to have tried to connect up their subjects’ different religious traditions. On Nemrud Dag, King Antiochus of Commagene created a series of images of deities with both Persian and Greek names. In Kushan Afghanistan, Greek philosophy and Buddhism intersected, equally alien to a people descended from Yueh-Chi nomads known from Chinese chronicles. These kings were perhaps the original lumpers, each trying to create a fused pantheon – whether to speak to many worshippers or simply to marshal as many divine forces as possible.

Splitting seems right, but it makes it all the more difficult to identify the essence of Mithras, or to discern a unitary divine figure of whom all these representations could be different facets. There is the name – in all its variants – and a set of associations, some more potent in one place than in another. Mithras is always young, never the chief or only god, sometimes the guarantor of oaths and sometimes the slayer of bulls. Yet he has been given many roles in his two-thousand-year history. On the rock-cut memorials of the Sassanian Persian emperors in the Zagros mountains, he appears as a divine supporter of a king entrusting his kingdom to his brother. The sun’s rays shine from behind his head, and he carries a sacred bundle of rods, the Zoroastrian barsom. On Kushan gold coins, he has a sword and holds a tamga, an emblem of the ruling family common among nomad peoples. Is he still the same god? Would Kushan Miiro or Roman Mithras have made much sense to a Sassanian viewer? I have been using the past tense yet Mithras has not entirely vanished. Today’s Zoroastrians, both in Iran and in India, where they are known as Parsees, worship at fire temples, and one of the Persian names for these is darb-e mehr, or ‘the gate of Mithras’.

Tracking a name and a bundle of images back and forth from Northumbria to the middle Ganges reveals the connectedness of ancient civilisations and the importance of local context in ancient worship. It also poses deeper questions about what holds a god, or a religion, together. How much variation can a god stand?

We could ask the question of other well-travelled deities. Claudia Brittenham, in the epilogue to Images of Mithra, follows Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, back and forth across central Mexico. Is there a stronger case for the unity of Jesus – honoured in such different ways by so many Christian and Muslim groups as well as by the Baha’i and some Buddhists and some Jews? This is, naturally, an outsider’s question, and where Mithras is concerned we are almost all outsiders now. It is our long view and our broad geographical perspective that reveals both patterns and inconsistencies that were invisible to almost everyone who worshipped this god of light over the four thousand years or more in which he struggled against the dark. Perhaps all religion is local in the end. Perhaps all these global deities and world religions are no more than shimmering phantoms of the Silk Roads.