In the 1st century AD, a new cult emerged in the Roman Empire. This unofficial religion revered Mithras, a Romanised form of the Indo-Iranian god Mithra, and its followers were widely believed to carry out occult practices and to have been instructed in many enigmatic secrets of the cosmos. That their advent in the Roman world corresponded with the rise of early Christianity made the followers of Mithras even more mystifying. But, by the 5th century, Mithraism had disappeared, for reasons still unclear.
The Musée Saint-Raymond (MSR) in Toulouse, southern France, is currently host to the second of three collaborative European exhibitions exploring the ‘mysteries of Mithras’. The exhibitions share many themes – exploring the origins of the cult, and its reception and interpretation through time – but each has a different focus. In Toulouse, the emphasis is on Mithraism in south-western Europe, with examples of many objects and works of art from Spain and Portugal, although the exhibition also showcases dozens of Mithraic artefacts from all the way across the Mediterranean, from Germany to Lebanon, reflecting the vast spread of the cult.
Inside the exhibition hall, lights are dimmed. Visitors are led through an area resembling the entrance of a mithraeum (the cave-like sanctuaries distinctive to the cult of Mithras) – flanked by statues of Cautes and Cautopates, the torch-bearing guardians of the temple – and plunged into the mysterious underground world inhabited by the followers of Mithras.
Understanding the mysteries of Mithras
As no surviving literary sources were left behind by the cult members themselves, modern understandings of the religion are based on archaeology, combined with insights from other ancient sources. These should be viewed with some scepticism, however, as most of the authors responsible for these texts understood the mysteries of Mithras poorly, and, in the case of the early Christians behind many of the sources, were actively hostile towards all pagans and viewed Mithraism as a ‘diabolical’ sect.
Franz Cumont, the Belgian historian termed ‘the father of Mithraic studies’, encountered some of the same difficulties. Between 1894 and 1900, he published a two-volume collection of source texts and images of monuments. In his writings, Cumont theorised that Mithraism was a Roman adaptation of an Iranian state religion. This interpretation was accepted throughout the first half of the 20th century, but has since come into question. Scholars such as Lucinda Dirven, Professor of Antique Religions at Nijmegen’s Radboud University, argues that ‘Cumont reconstructed the idea of Mithraism into the world of Zoroastrianism, using elements which he thought to be useful while ignoring archaeological evidence that may contradict his findings.’ In 1971, at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Cumont’s theories on the Persian origins of Mithraism were widely rejected.
Consequently, it is now commonly believed that although the Indo-Iranian deity Mithra, or Mitra, is mentioned in Near Eastern sources dating back as far as the 1380s BC, there is little connection between the Roman cult that emerged in the 1st century AD and the earlier god from whom the Roman Mithras took his name.
What was largely left intact of Cumont’s original theories, however, was his view on how the central element of Mithraism, Mithras’ bull-slaying (or tauroctony), should be decoded. This theme appears on many Mithraic objects. One of Toulouse’s showpieces, Mithras tauroctonus and the zodiac, a 4th-century marble relief found in Lebanon, gives a full depiction of the act of bull-killing. In this scene, Mithras wears an oriental tunic and military boots, together with a Phrygian cap. He has subdued the bull in much the same way that a wrestler pins down his opponent: knee-in-back, controlling the bull by holding his nostrils with his left hand, while, with his right hand, Mithras administers the coup de grâce. Not by cutting the throat, legionary style, but by driving the dagger behind the bull’s shoulder blade, letting him bleed to death. As the bull breathes his last, a dog and a serpent leap out to slurp the blood from its fatal wound. At the same time, a scorpion is about to set its pincers into the bull’s scrotum.
What does all this mean? Following Cumont’s interpretation, most scholars agree that the tauroctony represents the regeneration of life and the cosmos, and that the bull’s death will bring fertility to mankind, and its blood will be beneficial for plants. According to the exhibition’s curators, Pascal Capus and Margaux Bekas, ‘The bull is a motif commonly linked to fertility, especially in the ancient Near East, and this association is often highlighted in depictions of the tauroctony by the transformation of the animal’s tail into a plant motif.’
A cult following
Although the tauroctony was essential to Mithraism (as the cross is to Christianity), so far there is no archaeological evidence indicating that the followers of Mithras were themselves re-enacting the bull-killing. That said, some written sources suggest they were no strangers to bloody rituals, esoteric teachings, and secretive handshakes (they were sometimes called syndexoi, ‘united by the handshake’), and in several places they are described as having celebrated brutal initiation ceremonies. Being blindfolded, handcuffed, and tossed in cold water were, apparently, just some of the ways in which aspirant-followers of the cult could be welcomed in the cave. The exhibition’s curators, however, stress the absence of archaeological evidence for these violent traditions, and suggest that these tales – originally related by Christian authors aiming to criticise pagan cults like Mithraism – seem doubtful.
Inside the mithraeum, a strict hierarchy was often maintained, with initiates sorted into seven grades. This hierarchical system, which resembled that of the Roman army, has contributed to the widespread view of Mithraism as a soldiers’ religion. ‘The idea of loyal soldiers of Mithras fits in the military tradition,’ says the exhibition’s coordinator, Jean-Baptiste Cyrille-Lytras, ‘probably because many Mithraic initiates served together on the front-lines of the empire, where they developed bonds as brothers-in-arms.’ However, the exhibition’s curators suggest that the material evidence available today points to a cult that was largely open to civilians as well. Lucinda Dirven, who is considered one of the current experts in the field of Mithraic studies, also believes that the idea of Mithraism as a soldier-cult is probably exaggerated, saying, ‘Archaeological finds in Rome and in Ostia show that in these cities Mithras-followers were notably tradesmen, bureaucrats, and even freed slaves (who previously held administrative positions).’
For women, anyway, there appears to have been no place inside the caves. Some historians have even claimed that the followers of Mithras despised women, noting that not only are there no female-authored dedications or inscriptions found in mithraea, but women are even kept out of the mythical story of Mithras’ birth. This legend describes him emerging from a rock as a youth, and purposely bypasses any mention of motherhood. The scene of the god’s birth is commonly represented on Mithraic objects, such as the 2nd- to 3rd-century statue Mithras petra genetrix (below), which is on display in Toulouse.
Despite this, the exhibition’s curators stress that the absence of named female initiates in the archaeological record is not proof that they were banned from the cult. The view of the cult of Mithras as an exclusively male domain has also been questioned by Canadian historian Matthew McCarty, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of British Columbia, who since 2019 has been excavating a mithraeum in the Romanian city of Alba Iulia. He argues that ‘as far as we know, based on inscriptions that name worshippers involved in Mithras’ cult, women did not play a visible role… They did not make dedications of buildings and monuments; they are not named as achieving any of the grades; they do not get mentioned in graffiti. That said, a number of recent finds – especially the remains of a massive feast at Tienen, Belgium – point to the ways that wider communities might engage in less-official worship around Mithras. There were so many people at this feast, it would be hard to imagine them all as initiates or “regular” users of the mithraeum, which would generally hold about 20-30 people at a time. Therefore, women might have engaged in Mithras-worship in these more informal venues… although we don’t have positive evidence to that effect right now.’
The rise and fall of Mithras
Lucinda Dirven, who together with Matthew McCarty is working on the publication of the final report of the mithraeum from the Syrian archaeological site of Dura-Europos, believes that modern scholarship on the cult of Mithras has recently undergone a change in perspective: ‘Scholars are tending to let go of the Cumontian habit of reconstructing the story of Mithraism. They have become increasingly aware that Mithraic cults were gathered around local leaders, or paters, who had considerable influence on how these small communities constructed their religion, and how they expressed their religious feelings, depending on local circumstances. Rather than comparing dispersed Mithraic mysteries around the Empire, we now look at Mithraic practices in certain localities, and study how they are related to other local cults.’
If there is one point on which scholars agree, it is that for a cult so popular and widespread around the Mediterranean world, Mithraism also declined rather rapidly. If the 2nd and 3rd centuries were the peak of Mithras’ popularity, by the beginning of the 5th century there is hardly any archaeological testimony left of his veneration. The traditional assumption is that the downfall of Mithraism was directly connected to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Matthew McCarty proposes another explanation for the cult’s demise: lack of interest. He suggests that ‘the cult tended to be based around individual communities, and those communities depended on charismatic leaders, freelance peddlers of religion who drew in worshippers and persuaded them to invest capital into the cult. Such cult communities tend to last two or three generations after the loss of such a leader: exactly the length of time most mithraea seem to be in use. Changes in society in the late 3rd and 4th centuries all contributed to a less fertile ground for new communities, and many of those charismatic peddlers of religion may have found new strains of Christianity more profitable for drawing followers than Mithras-worship or other things!’
The Toulouse exhibition (and its catalogue, The Mystery of Mithras: exploring the heart of a Roman cult) has been praised by experts such as Dirven and McCarty for its role in putting forward the newest insights in Mithraic studies. At the museum itself, curator Jean-Baptiste Cyrille-Lytras is equally content with The Mystery of Mithras, saying, on its opening, ‘This summer we will likely welcome over 20,000 visitors. Not bad, for a relatively modest museum.’ From 19 November, the Mithras collection will move to the Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt, where it will be joined by more examples of Mithraic art and, possibly, some new discoveries, for the third and final instalment in the exhibition series.
DETAILS The Mystery of Mithras: exploring the heart of a Roman cult Address: Musée Saint-Raymond, Place Saint-Sernin 1, 31000 Toulouse Open: until 30 October Website: www.saintraymond.toulouse.fr
ALL IMAGES: Jean-Baptiste Cyrille-Lytras, Musée Saint-Raymond, unless otherwise stated.