This week: Mithras

Marie-Lan Nguyen White marble Mithraic relief from Rome. IMAGE: Louvre Museum/WikiMedia Commons.

There are some things we can say with certainty about the Roman god Mithras.

We know, for instance, that this wonderfully enigmatic deity flourished between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, but was inspired by the much more ancient Indo-Iranian god Mithra.

We know that his cult was popular among Roman soldiers and merchants, who attended secretive torchlit rituals in cave-like underground temples now known as ‘mithraea’.

We know that Mithraism had a serious spiritual side, but also acted as a social network, with worshippers undergoing a complex system of initiations, and partaking of communal ritual meals.

And we know that its influence spread far and wide across the Roman empire – with more than 400 associated sites uncovered, from Syria in the east to Spain in the west, and from Africa in the south to Hadrian’s Wall in the north.

As we discover this week on The Past, however, there are also things about this elusive unofficial religion that may always remain tantalisingly obscure.

With no surviving literary sources left behind by cult members themselves, modern understanding of Mithraism has largely been based on archaeology, combined with insights from other ancient sources. But this raises the question of how far we can rely on those alternative accounts, many of which were written by early Christians who considered their Mithraic rivals to be part of a ‘diabolical’ pagan sect.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, Gillis Kersting attempts to separate fact from fiction on a visit to ‘The Mystery of Mithras’, a fascinating new exhibition currently on show at Toulouse’s Musée Saint-Raymond that explores the origins of the cult, and its reception and interpretation down the ages.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives to learn more about Mithraism: Margaux Bekas and Pascal Capus, the curators of the Toulouse exhibition, explained how they pieced together the image of a god who is unlike any other in the Roman pantheon; the children’s writer Caroline Lawrence explained how he once inspired one of her best-selling books; and the archaeologist Sophie Jackson reported on the project to reconstruct and reinterpret London’s very own Temple of Mithras for a new generation.

And finally, if all that leaves you longing for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Roman gods and goddesses. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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