Mithras – what is there to say?

The third in a series of weekly instalments featuring insights from the authors of ‘Images of Mithra, published in March 2017, questions what we can learn from seemingly the most permanent of all Mithraic remains – sculptures carved into the living rock.

Writing a PhD about early Christian baptisteries, I discovered Mithras while I was looking for parallels in Roman religions to the rite of baptism. I started from a textbook on Christian baptism that claims that there is no other religion in the Roman world for which water is as indispensable in the initiation rite as in Christianity. Familiarizing myself with Mithraic worship, I came to understand that while there is a possibility that this claim could be true, it is impossible to verify. In contrast to Christianity, other forms of Roman religion, and the worship of Mithras is a prime example of this, left next to no textual evidence that could help us to understand what in fact this was all about. What Mithras worshippers did leave behind, before the god’s worship mostly disappeared in the fourth century, are archaeological remains, and lots of them! How does one make sense, though, of these Mithraic sites without written testimonies?

Bourg St Andéol tauroctony
A rock-carved tauroctony (bull-slaying) at Bourg St Andéol in the Ardèche
In my search for ritual usages of water in Roman Mithras worship I came across a Mithraic sacred space (mithraeum) in the little town of Bourg St Andéol in South Eastern France that was constructed in between two springs, possibly in the 2nd century AD. Petit Gouffre and Grand Goule flow into the river Tourne, and in between there is a natural platform nestling up against a rock face. We believe that Mithras worshippers built a mithraeum on this scenic spot because of a massive rock relief showing Mithras with the bull – the iconic tauroctony that supposedly must be present in any mithraeum. Many scholars think that this was a secret image, only for the eyes of initiated worshippers. Therefore, it is thought that the rock relief would have covered the back wall of an enclosed mithraeum.

Plan of the mithraeum at Bourg St Andéol by F. Revoil from 1854
Plan of the mithraeum at Bourg St Andéol by F. Revoil from 1854 – the tauroctony was positioned at the end of the dotted line by the words ‘Dieu Mithra’
The two springs of Bourg St Andéol give us good reason to believe that the Mithraic community here attached value to water, either in general or to the very springs in place. What they did with the spring water, if anything at all, is much harder to say. The Christian writer Tertullian wrote in about the time when Mithras was worshipped in Bourg St Andéol that, ‘It is through a bath that initiates are introduced to mysteries like the one of Isis or Mithras’ (De praesc. haer., 40.4). Tertullian makes it sound as if water was central to the initiation rite of the Mithraic Mysteries – much like in Christian baptism. But Tertullian was writing in faraway Carthage in modern day Tunisia, he was not initiated into the Mysteries himself, and being a fervent Christian he pursued his own interests when writing about other gods. How much worth, would you say, his testimony has for the worshippers in Bourg St Andéol? It’s a question I find difficult to answer.

Talking to my co-authors, I realized that I was most interested in that part of the evidence that one simply cannot argue with. So, my attention shifted to the rock face with its tauroctony carving. It cannot be carried away, cannot be rearranged, but was likely the most significant figurative element in the entire mithraeum.

Mithraeum in Močići, Croatia
Mithraeum in Močići, Croatia (top left)

Can more be said about something so ephemeral, like water or any of those elements of worship that are now lost, from something as permanent as this rock-cut tauroctony? Fortunately, there is more than one such tauroctony that we can turn to. I found eight large scale rock cut tauroctonies which were plausibly part of a mithraeum, the one of Bourg St Andéol being the westernmost example, while the easternmost ones are in Doliche in Turkey. It proved in fact very fruitful to analyse them. The way Mithraic communities arranged the central image in the cult space shows that they sometimes constructed their sacred spaces similarly to fellow worshippers in other regions, but sometimes they simply did their own thing. In Močići in Croatia, for example, worshippers did not take precautions to hide the tauroctony carving. It stands over a natural cave in an open space, and can be seen by everyone passing by. If that is so, there is a valid question about how confidently we can make generalisations about shared practices of Mithras worshippers across the Roman empire.

18th century view of the tauroctony of Bourg St Andéol
18th century view of the tauroctony of Bourg St Andéol
Because there is so little certainty, but so many tantalising clues amongst the archaeological remains, it is extremely tempting to overstate what can be reasonably said about Mithras worship. The 18th century image above is the creative vision of a rather fanciful viewer at Bourg St Andéol’s. But I admit that I sympathise with the artist whose imagination carved out of the weathered rock relief, a naked athlete in cap and cape, substantially larger than the original image actually is – it must have seemed a work of art hidden in nature, entirely removed from its previous use as cult image in a now obsolete mithraeum.

On a recent trip to Algeria, I might have discovered a more recent instance of the same tendency to construe Mithras worship the way we’d like it best. In the Roman ruins of Tiddis, a mithraeum has been preserved, hewn into the bright red rock of the mountainous city. I initially admired the two well preserved winged phalloi that frame the doorway to the mithraeum. Well entertained by the idea of them having been the public face of Mithras in Tiddis, it took me longer than usual to realize that the stone blocks underneath them are of irregular shape. It is unlikely that they were always mounted in this way. It is possible even, that they were found somewhere else in the city, but relocated to the Mithraic site where they seemed to fit best. Certainly better than at the entrance to the church opposite of the mithraeum!

Mithraeum of Tiddis, Eastern Algeria
Mithraeum of Tiddis, Eastern Algeria

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Author: Stefanie Lenk

All images © 2017 Empires of Faith

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