The Importance of Mithras’ Stare: where to look?

The first in a series of weekly instalments featuring insights from the authors of ‘Images of Mithra, published in March 2017, looks at perhaps the most well-known depiction of Mithras – the ‘tauroctony’ – and the peculiar direction of the god’s gaze.

As a boy, and particularly on holiday whilst being dragged from castle, to museum, to cathedral, to gallery, via various churches, and shops selling absolute rubbish, I was a renowned starer. When your parents wanted to spend their time looking at as much stuff as mine seemed to want to, this was probably an inevitable development. Being a starer, as I was and remain, means that you look at a lot of things – you become a bit of a visual materialist, always on the hunt for something else to consume. But you also think a lot harder about how people look at things – you can learn an awful lot about someone from watching the way that they ‘look’.

BM Standish Tauroctony
The Standish tauroctony, British Museum

Mithras, as he was known in the Roman empire, is represented in one of the most iconic and easily recognisable poses of any figure from the ancient world – the so-called tauroctony, or bull-slaying. He is shown on top of a bull, forcing it to the ground with his body and outstretched leg, and pulling its head back with his left hand. In his right he grasps a knife, which is more often than not just being plunged into the bull’s neck or flank, rarely so deep as to be at the end of the stroke – in other words, mid-action. This is a tense scene – Mithras and the bull are battling. His cape swirls behind him, the muscles of both are taut and strained, and the bull’s expression is a ghastly, contorted picture of pain, and ultimately defeat. So why on earth is Mithras looking away from what he’s doing?

Detail of the bull's head, Standish Tauroctony
Not a happy bull: detail from the Standish tauroctony, British Museum.

This gaze could be construed as the equivalent of the cocky pool player’s – it’s a bit like saying, ‘watch this!’ as you play a shot, staring into the eyes of your opponent or person you’re trying desperately to impress. Is that what this is about – Cool Hand Mithras? An attempt to emphasis the god’s brilliance by having him casually looking away at the crucial moment? I don’t think we need to suppose that the Romans were looking to depict this god with a pronounced level of bar-room braggadocio – though I might be horribly wrong – but they were surely aware that displaying the god in this way made a difference to how he was received.

The Townley Tauroctony
The Townley tauroctony, British Museum

You get a much clearer sense of this when you compare depictions of Mithras that have been made to face the bull. Fortunately for us, two different statues belong to the British Museum. Both of these came into the collection in the 19th century – formerly the possessions of the Standish and the Townley families of Lancashire (see above). Statues, particularly of this size, are not common amongst Mithraic finds – the majority of images tend to be reliefs. One of the reasons for that is because statues are considerably harder to keep in one piece. True to form, both of these have undergone some considerable repairs, including their heads – however, one now faces out, and one faces in.*

CIMRM 1083 from Nida,
A painted replica of a tauroctony relief from Nida/Heddernheim in Germany, now in the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum.

The difference this makes to the scene is really rather striking. One is a contained, self-reliant image – it is a representation of a male figure fighting a bull. Yes, there’s a lot of other weird and wonderful stuff going on (those two little men behind the bull, for example), but all-in-all this is between man and beast. But now look at the other. Mithras here is nonchalantly looking out of the scene – he is calm, his mouth is slightly parted, and he seems totally disinterested in the fact that he has a rather large animal beneath him that he’s quite literally just stabbed. Does this heighten the scene’s significance by pulling the viewer into the scene? Does this forge a connection between man and god? After all, he is not just looking out, but towards us.

Detail of Mithras, Standish tauroctony, British Museum
Remarkably unfazed: detail of Mithras’ head, Standish tauroctony, British Museum

What we see in both of these statues are restorations. The Standish restorers likely knew what other representations of Mithras looked like so they simply followed suit – the vast majority of Mithraic finds show the god facing outwards or looking over his shoulder (as in the example from Nida above). In the case of the Townley statue, the restorers probably didn’t know of other examples, so when they made Mithras face inwards they were doing something quite natural – why would he not face the bull and the knife? That’s how you lose fingers. We also have a number of other statues where the performing god – though not Mithras – was doing just that (see below). The actions of the restorers, one suspects, were based on the logic of this action.

A winged-victory and the Townley tauroctony, British Museum
In the foreground is a winged-Victory, behind is the Townley tauroctony, as seen in the Townley gallery, British Museum

We can bemoan the inaccuracy of the Townley’s restorations, or we can see in it a marvellous demonstration of just how important the god’s gaze actually was for what we make of the tauroctony. Depicting this moment and subverting it by showing Mithras looking away, forces us to question what is going on. The viewer is engaged in the act, brought into the scene by the god’s disengagement with his own actions. In a religious context, the confrontation with the god that the image forces is paramount to how it functions. It deliberately eschews traditions and expectations, playing with Greek and Roman forms of sculpture, but arranging them with subversive intent.

What exactly this ‘meant’ is not a simple question to answer – in part, the meaning of this scene, as with any ‘art’, must always be the product of what the viewer saw in it. A great many features of the tauroctony can be unravelled for their various meanings and significances, from astrological to soteriological. Mithras’ gaze is just one of these, but given what these two statues show us, it is by no means the least significant. As we will see in future weeks, the diversity of Mithras’ worshippers likely meant that they took quite different things from this scene. For now, though, it is enough for us to know that it mattered.

* It should be pointed out that the large scale repairs to both objects were carried out before they entered the British Museum collection.

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Author: Dominic Dalglish

All images © 2017 Empires of Faith

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