Wednesday, 9 May 2018

London's Mithraeum Liturgy

On the evening of Thursday 17 May 2018, just over a week from the date of this post I, Caroline Lawrence, will be meeting with children aged 8-12 (and their guardians) at an ancient Roman underground temple: London’s Mithraeum. This will be the first #MuseumsAtNight hosted by the Mithraeum at Bloomberg Space, which only opened to the public last year. 

I will be doing some fun interactive activities with the children to prepare them for the Immersive Experience on the site of London’s Mithraeum, now back in its original place. (If you want to see what I’ll be doing with the kids, check out my blog post: Interactive Mithras.) 


Mithraism was a mystery cult that arose in Rome (or possibly the coast of Turkey) in the middle of the first century AD, around the same time as Christianity. Unlike Christianity, Mithraism was a mystery cult and by definition kept its rites and rituals secret. There were no scriptures so almost everything we know about it is guesswork based on archaeological evidence and a few peripheral literary sources, some of them hostile. 

The god Mithras seems to have had elements of the Indo-Iranian god Mithra (without an S), but with added qualities from other deities. Like Serapis and Sulis Minerva, he was syncretistic, i.e. a hybrid god, one to be added to hundreds of others.


If the symbol of Christianity is the cross, the symbol of Mithras was a very complicated scene of the god stabbing a bull while surrounded by signs of the Zodiac and other heavenly figures, including two torchbearers called Cautes and Cautopates, possible threshold guardians to the Gates of Heaven. Also crowded into the scene were creatures such as a dog, a snake, a raven and a scorpion. 


Trying to reconstruct the rites, rituals and beliefs of Mithras based on this mysterious image would be like someone trying to reconstruct Christianity based on the image of a crucified man along with accounts of a few of his miracles. 

One theory is that Mithras was a god who created the world by slaying a cosmic bull. (However the word ‘tauroctony’, i.e. ‘bull-slaying’, does not appear anywhere in antiquity.)

Another theory is that the bull represents evil which cannot be destroyed, only disabled, and that the stabbing is an apotropaic attempt to weaken its power and bring some good out of it. 


The definitive book on Mithras
However there are also scenes of Mithras and the sun-god Sol enjoying a banquet on a bull’s skin, so it seems the first theory is more plausible, though the bull-stabbing did also seem to have apotropaic powers. 

Unlike almost every other religion known to us, Mithraism was only open to men. The small, exclusively male congregations met not in a temple but in an underground space designed to partly resemble a cave. In fact the use of the word ‘mithraeum’ is nowhere attested. Instead we find references to Caves of Mithras

Another of the aspects we can be fairly sure of is that there was a hierarchy of different grades in this Mystery Cult. The idea of rising by promotion would have been a familiar one to soldiers and male citizens of the Roman Empire.


We believe there were seven grades of initiation ranging from Raven to Father. Each grade had its own name, ruling planet, colour, attributes and possibly even noises. The aim of moving from grade to grade was possibly to achieve immortality of the soul by ascending through the seven heavenly spheres of purification or knowledge. 

A fascinating mosaic showing the grades by attributes can be seen on one of Ostia’s seventeen Mithraea, named after Felicissimus, who dedicated the mosaic. 

The seven grades, from lowest to highest, were these: 
(Latin name – English – governing planet – colour – attributes)
Corax – Raven – Mercury – Black – raven, beaker, caduceus
Nymphus – Bridegroom – Venus – Yellow? – lamp, diadem
Miles – Soldier – Mars – Orange? – sling, helmet, spear
Leo – Lion – Jupiter – Red – thunderbolt, sistrum, fire spade
Perses – Persian – Moon – White? – crescent moon, dagger
Heliodromus – Sun-Runner – Sun – Gold – torch, crown, whip
Pater – Father – Saturn – Purple – Persian cap, staff, sickle

Pictoral evidence hints that each grade could only be achieved by enduring a humiliating and frightening initiation. This often involved the initiate being stripped, blindfolded and threatened with death. Following the initiation of a new member the followers of Mithras would celebrate a banquet, an important part of the brotherhood as the layout of over four hundred Caves of Mithras show. 


The Mithraic feast by Judith Dobie, snapped at the Museum of London

A tantalising find concerning Mithras is a possible liturgy written on the walls of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum at Rome. 


For those of you who have studied Latin, (children included), I thought it would be fun to publish the Latin liturgy created especially for Londons Mithraeum by Roger Tomlin, the brilliant scholar who has translated many of the Vindolanda and Bloomberg tablets, ancient Roman documents that have defeated mere mortals.

Roger has replicated a possible liturgy based on the graffiti from the Santa Prisca Mithraeum. 

What follows are Latin phrases that sharp-eared visitors to London’s Mithraeum might ‘overhear’ when they descend to the ancient temple for the Immersive Experience. The one word you might not recognise is Nama. This is the Persian word for ‘Hail!’ and the Sanskrit word for ‘I bow’, still used today by everyone who takes a yoga class when they say, Namaste: ‘I bow to you’ or ‘I thank you’.  

London’s Mithraeum Liturgy 

(spoiler alert: don’t read this if you want the immersive experience to be a surprise)

[The lights in the Mithraeum go down and there is silence for a moment. Then the sound of a door creaking open and footsteps. Men greet one another. The splash and trickle of water. Footsteps on gravel. The haunting sound of a horn blares out.] 

[PATER] Nama Coracibus, tutela Mercurii 
Hail to the Ravens, under the protection of Mercury  

[RAVENS] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni  
Hail to the Father, under the protection of Saturn

[sistrum joins the horn]

[PATER] Nama nymphis, tutela Veneris
Hail to the Bridegrooms, under the protection of Venus

[drums join the horn]

[BRIDEGROOMS] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni   
Hail to the Father, etc. 

[drum, horn, rattles]

[PATER] Nama Militibus, tutela Martis
Hail to the Soldiers, under the protection of Mars

[RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

[PATER]  Nama Leonibus , tutela Iovis   
Hail to the Lions, under the protection of Jove

[drum, horn, rattles]

[RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

[PATER] Nama Persis, tutela Lune  
Hail to the Persians, under the protection of the Moon  

[RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

[the men’s voices are getting louder and louder]

[PATER] Nama Heliodromis, tutela Solis  
Hail to Helios’ couriers, under the protection of the Sun  

[RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

[PATER] Nama Patribus ab oriente ad occidentem, tutela Saturni 
Hail to the Fathers, from east to west [lit. from rising to setting sun], under the protection of Saturn.

[RESPONSE] Nama Patribus! Et patri nostro 
Hail to the Fathers and to Our Father
Silvano et Pontifici, tutela Saturni
and priest Silvanus, under the protection of Saturn

Nama Patribus, Nama Patribus!

[drumming and rattling reaches a crescendo then the trill of a single flute. Sound of men eating, laughing, clink of cutlery, glugging of wine… The sound of a spoon tapping a glass beaker for attention]

Honesti, socii, propinemus!
Gentlemen, companions, a toast! 

Mithras quoque miles, robora nos ad diem,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!
Roma regit populos, rex tu tamen omnium.
Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all!

Nama Mithras! Nama Mithras! 

[Everyone cheers]

[Partly muffled by banter, the Father utters final prayers]

Mithras, salva nos... orare… nocturnos… 
placatos… vias multas fecisti (?)

[We hear solitary footsteps receding…then the creak of hinges, the slamming of a door and…
… the wind, the universal sign of abandonment and desolation.]

And when the lights come on again you are in for a surprise!


Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence is currently working on a book involving a 12-year-old Londoner named Alex Papas, a time portal in London’s Mithraeum and the bones of a 14-year-old girl from Africa who died in 3rd century Londinium. The working title is Ways to Die in Londinium. Caroline will be brainstorming ideas and doing a reading from this work in progress at London’s Mithraeum on the evening of Thursday 17 May 2018. Book your FREE place HERE

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