Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Mithras' Helpers

As I said before, the problem with the Mithras mysteries is that they were just that, mysteries, known only to the initiated. We can deduce a few things from the iconography, but due to lack of written sources, much remains in the shadows of their subterranean temples.

Mithras is often depicted with two smaller figures called Cautes and Cautopates. Cautes is holding a torch aloft, while Cautopates holds his pointed down. The significance of these gestures is discussed. Sunrise and sunset, some say, or light and darkness, or justice and obedience - the latter makes less sense to me because I can't figure out what the position of the torches should have to do with things like obedience. Though justice and obedience were among the virtues Mithras disciples swore to uphold.

To the left: Cautes.

Found in Stockstadt near Mainz (the Roman Moguntiacum, one of the major Rhine border fortresses) today displayed in the Saalburg museum. The upper part of the statue has been reconstructed according to other images of him.

To the right: Cautopates.

Besides the down-pointing torch, he holds something that looks like a lightning in his left hand. I have no idea what that signifies, but there seems to be more behind Cautes and Cautopates than symbols of light and darkness if other attributes are found with them.

Like most other Roman forts in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Saalburg must have had a mithraeum, but it's not where it has been reconstructed on the remains of some Roman walls, We know today that the structure has been misinterpreted, probably because the people involved with the Saalburg excavations and reconstruction wished to have a mithraeum in the 19th century. The real one hasn't been found yet, but judging from other places like Brocolita, it might well be somewhat further from the fort than first thought - somewhere in the woods, hidden even to aerial photography.

  Happy Holidays

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas or whatever way you celebrate the return of light.

  The Sacrifice (Short Story)

This story first appeared in the Stories of Strength Katrina Relief Anthology in Nov. 2005. Since I retain the rights to my work except one-time anthology rights, I think it's safe to share it on my blog two years later. It fits the time of the year, though it's not my usual sort of story. I hope you enjoy it

Silence wavered around the fire; the men had not resumed their talk after the bard ended his song. Long ago they had ceased to hand around tankards of ale; their bearded faces were haggard, their shoulders sagging. King Brude could almost breathe the hoplessness radiating from the men, and it suffocated him.

The shine of the fire did not reach the wattle and daub huts where the king's chosen warriors lived; they stood as black shapes against a starless sky. But not one of those around the fire wanted to go back to a sleep filled with nightmares.

"Something strange is in the air," a man said and glared at the king.

"Columba says they don't use magic, and I believe him." Brude stirred the fire with a branch so the flames played on his black hair, tinting it with a lustre of burgundy. "I want to believe him." He cast the branch aside with a crisp move and drew his fur lined cloak close. The wind blew cold from the sea, the wooden palisade of the hill fort did not keep it out. And then he heared the sound, faint, carried by the wind, a strange harmony. For a moment, the king could distinguish words of the song in the wind, "God is our hope and strength."

"You hear it?"

Brude nodded. "There is power in their song." He leaned back against the stone carved with salmons and entwining circles that marked the royal seat.

A gust howled and drew sparks from the fire, some landed on the men. King Brude flinched as one hit the snake tattooed on his wrist. Scraps of words fluttered in the air, "... Therefore we will not fear ...." The king pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. The stone suddenly felt cold.

The wind increased and its wailing drowned the echoes of the strange hymn. Snow flakes began to float down, lazily at first, but soon they became a dense swirl.

"Where is Broichan, the druid?" one of the men muttered, "He could tell us whether this storm forebodes more cold and a frozen lake, so we'll have to go without fish as well, now the grain is already short and no game to be found in the woods."

Another man lifted his head, staring at Brude. "Those strangers should never have been allowed to settle so near." Further words remained unspoken: the king is weak.

"Loch Ness never freezes," King Brude clenched his hands around his knees; the men's eyes, aglow in the shine of the fire, haunted him. After a while he rose and walked away from the fire, head bowed against the wind, his hair blowing into his face. He touched the stone with his hand in passing.

In his hut, he sank upon the furs and hides covering the bed, and with deliberate movements undid the eagle-shaped silver fibula holding his cloak, the heavy silver chain, the amber-inlaid bracelets: a king who lay aside the ornaments of his regal position for the last time. I will be strong. He drew his sword.

"There will be no need to lay down your life in sacrifice," a voice came from the door, and with it a gust of icy wind.

The king looked up. "Broichan?"

The druid entered the room, his imposing stature seemed to fill it. The tattooes on his bare arms gleamed alive with wetness, and the water running from his deerskin coat formed a puddle on the clay floor. "I will challenge this Columba."

"But it is I who have failed. I should have refused Columba and the other monks a place on my land, no matter that Columba is a descendant of two powerful Irish families. Now they sit in their little wooden church near Inbhir Nis and sing their songs."

Broichan nodded. "And the villagers are fearful of the strangers. They think the monks' singing evokes evil spirits that brought this unusual cold upon us, and the bad dreams."

"I do not think Columba and his monks are hostile, and they too suffer from the cold and the lack of food. But something goes on here I cannot fathom."

"It's that Christian magic." Broichan spat on the floor to avert evil. "But we'll make Columba and his monks leave. They can take their songs back to Eire."

Would Columba's withdrawal give my people food and restore their trust in me? Brude wondered, but aloud he said, "Columba would refuse to fight me. As far as I know his religion, it forbids the use of the sword."

"They have other means," Broichan growled, "but it will be to no avail. This Columba calls himself priest of the King of Heaven, and it falls upon me, the druid of the High King of the Picts, to fight him." His eyes gleamed with pride.

King Brude ran his thumb along the fuller of the sword. "It should be I who fights him," he murmured, "Even if it means my death."

"Victory, not sacrifice and death is what you should seek." Broichan turned and stepped out into the blast.

Brude let the sword sink, the point touching the floor, and stared into nothing.


The morning dawned cold and clear and an icy wind with a tinge of salt blew from the sea. The men rode down a grassy slope, huddled in their woollen cloaks, chilled fingers grasping stiff leather reins, their breath forming tiny clouds. Shock and disbelief struck them as they beheld the montionless surface of Loch Ness reflecting the light in a way the dark water never did.

"Ice," a man whispered.

King Brude blinked back a tear the wind had driven forth, and with one hand clasped the silver chain, the insignia of his position. It felt cold on his skin through the coarse linen smock. He spurred his horse and the men rode on.

A few people in the village watched them pass, apathetic, faces gaunt with deep-sunk eyes. An old man murmured a curse. The king reined his horse and looked at the man who held his gaze. You are weak. You have failed us.

Broichan guided his pony to the king's side and glared at the man, who took a step back.

Brude lifted his hand. "Not by fear does the king rule," he said to the druid, his voice stern. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. I am still strong enough to die for the land.

The man's eyes widened in understanding.

Loch Ness

They rode past more disheveled villagers staring at them, passed the rickety palisade that encircled the settlement, and trotted towards the church. A bell tolled, the sound echoed in the clear air.

Columba met them in front of the wooden door, carved with some crude images of figures wearing long mantles, and, in the center, a naked man nailed to a cross.

Broichan dismounted and stepped in front of Columba. "You have put evil magic upon the country."

"It is not I; it is God who is great above all, and who has deemed it fit to send bad weather to remind us of our sins - you and me, and both our people." Columba's voice was soft and clear, but yet it resounded with a hidden power that made it carry far into the mountains.

King Brude clenched the reins of his prancing horse, his hands wet with sweat.

"I challenge you and your god," Broichan said. His voice sounded uncouth after Columba's gentle speech.

"I am a servant of the One Who Is Above Us, and it is by His grace I live and die." Columba turned to Brude. "Do you agree to this?"

The king dismounted. "Yes. Our gods have abandoned us, and my people suffer." He petted the neck of his pony, trying to get rid of the layer of cold sweat on his hands.

"I understand." Columba ordered two monks to build a large fire in the place in front of the church.

Broichan stared at the king. "Our gods have not turned away, they will lend me strength," he hissed.

"Drive the cold away and give my people food is all I ask." Brude avoided the druid's gaze and instead watched as the men in their coarse brown habits hurried to and fro, while other monks stood near the door, murmuring prayers in a language unknown to Brude. He remembered the songs of last night, and their secret power. He should have stepped forth and taken the task upon himself, giving his life for his people by entering the sacred pyre. But some invisible power held him back.

When the fire burned brightly in the cold morning air, Broichan cast his coat off and stepped into the blaze with his tattooed chest bare, while the bard played the harp he had brought with him. The music sounded oddly subdued.

After a short moment, the druid jumped out of the pyre, mouth agape, but no scream came forth. He threw himself onto the ground, rolling around in an attempt to quench the flames. The men stepped back in horror.

Brude ran towards him, but Columba's arm, the strong arm of a warrior, intercepted his passage. "Wait."

The sound of the harp died, a last note vibrating in the silence.

Columba ascended the pyre, and the prayers of the monks became louder, an intricate song of intertwining voices. The melodious sound of Columba's voice dominated them, singing in Gaelic.

"God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,

A wail cut the air. It took Brude a moment to realise it came from Broichan. His men stood huddled together near the druid, but none dared to approach him. The king remained on the other side of the pyre, spellbound by Columba's song.

And though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.
The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge."

Columba stood in the midst of the soaring flames, unharmed.

King Brude threw his cloak back, unsheathed his sword and sank to one knee close to the fire. He offered it to Columba on both hands, inhaling sharply as his bare arms met with the flames, but there was no pain. "If my death pleases your god, take my life." He felt calm, almost serene.

Columba took the sword and stepped out of the fire. When Brude withdrew his arms the skin was pure and unblemished, the tattooes had disappeared. He stared at his arms.

"Accept it as a sign," Columba said.

"But why has Broichan been burnt, and I have been purified?" Brude said, his voice low with astonishment and awe.

"Because Broichan acted out of ambition, and you out of the desire to save your people. God knows the mind of men. But there is no need to sacrify your life like your people have done in times past. Jesus has already died for all of us." Columba handed the sword back to Brude. "Rise, you are High King of the Picts. I am no more than a humble monk."

"You are more. You are a great mage and druid."

"No," Columba said with a gentle smile, "I am but a servant. And what was at work here was no magic, but a miracle."

"I don't understand."

"You will, within time."

King Brude rose and walked to Broichan, who still writhed in the mud in screaming agony, his skin red, blistered and oozing fluid. Brude knelt down and, caressing Broichan's forehead, looked up at Columba. "He has served me well for so long a time. Can't you heal him?"

Columba took a plain iron cross off his neck and handed it to Brude. "You can do it yourself."

"But I don't know your ... miracles."

Again, Columba gave him that gentle smile and said in his suave voice, "Act upon what your heart tells you."

The king grasped the cross. It felt heavy and warm in his hand. He laid it upon Broichan's chest and murmured a line of the song, a line he remembered, though he did not understand its meaning. "God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble."

The druid's skin began to heal, the blisters closed. He gazed at his king with a confused look. "What happened?"

"You have lost the challenge." Brude decided to explain later. There was more to it than a lost challenge; it might well be the end of the time they knew. And he felt both afraid and hopeful.

He turned to Columba. "Will you and your brothers accept the hospitality of my seat and tell me about your god?"

Columba inclined his head. "We will be honoured."

When they passed through Inbhir Nis, the warriors leading their ponies to keep step with the monks, the wind grew warmer and the ice on the lake began to creak. Brude caught the glance of the old man. I was wrong, you are a strong king after all.

Columba began to sing. Brude hummed a few tones he heard the night before, "Therefore we will not fear ...."

  Mithras Altars

I have mentioned that Mithras slaying the primordial bull is part of the Mithras cult, and that many altars in the mithraea show this scene. Below is a particularly beautiful Mithras altar from the museum at the Limes fort Osterburken in Germany.

Mithras altar stone, Osterburken

Scenes from Mithras' life and worship are depicted around the central scene of the tauroctony, the slaying of the bull.

Since the Mithras cult was especially popular among soldiers, there have been mithraea near most Roman forts, though not all have been discovered yet. The Saalburg had one as well as Osterburken. The exact location of the mithraeum of the latter is not known because the altar stone was discovered in the 19th century and taken to a museum before systematic diggings could take place. The whole first Osterburken excavation must have been a rather disorderly mess, and part of the fort is today covered by houses.

Closeup of the tauroctony

The figures to the left and right are Cautes and Cautopates, Mithras' helpers. I haven't yet figured out their exact role in the ritus, but they are in most tauroctony scenes, and even have figures of their own sometimes, as displayed in the Saalburg museum (post to come).

Osterburken managed to keep the altar stone which is today on display in the new museum that was built to cover the baths of the vicus. Just well - the Römisch-Germanisches Nationalmuseum Mainz doesn't need to get everything Roman. *wink*

Mithras Slaying the Bull, York Museum

This stone has been found in York, together with other proof for the existence of a mithraeum.

York, known in Roman times as Eboracum, was the administrative and military center of northern Britain, and people from all over the Empire brought their religions with them. Besides Mithras and Iupiter Optimus Maximus, the Roman State god, there was an alter dedicated to the Celtic Mother Godess popular in the Rhine area and several others. Often those foreign gods would be aligned with the Roman pantheon so that for example the British god Nodens became the same as Mars. The Roman Empire granted freedom of religion as long as the people also participated in the cult of the deified emperors.

Here's the last of the Mithras pics in my collection: Mithras as sun charioteer. There isn't acutally much left of him, but three out of the four horses are still in pretty good shape.

Mithras driving the Sun Chariot, Saalburg Museum

There are two motives that maybe stand for some sort of resurrection mythos connected to Mithras, his role as sun charioteer, and an iconographic motive that shows him dining with another god (Apoll?). I think this second motive may have been a later addition, because in the original mythos, Mithras is not connected with other gods of the Persian pantheon.

It's all very mysterious, but people - especially men - seem to be attracted to that sort of community; just look at the popularity of the Masons in the 18th/19th centuries. Initiation rites, grades of membership, secrets ... they got all that, too. Though I can't detect a direct historical connection between both.

  Otto of Northeim

Otto held large possessions spread out in what is today Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Hessia, so when the Emperor Heinrich IV declared him outlaw, everyone and his uncle came swooping down at Otto, even those who didn't really care about Heinrich either, in order to hack a chunk off his lands. Ruotger of Eschwege was one of these, but the biggest bird in the flock turned out to be Welf IV who divorced Otto's daughter, changed sides, and gained the duchy of Bavaria (1).

Hanstein, south gate and curtain wall on bedrock base

The year between his banishment and final surrender was a turbulent one for Otto. He managed to keep a number of followers, but had to flee zigzag across Germany, plundering some fiefs of Heinrich's men in Thuringia, moving to his former allodial possessions around Göttingen (Northeim, the Hanstein etc.), getting involved in a few skirmishes with unfriendly neighbours, then spending some time on the Billung estates of his friend Magnus near Lüneburg until the latter was banished as well. The chronicler Lampert of Hersfeld says Otto had to recur to highway robbery in order to get the money to uphold his - ever diminishing - retinue.

Hanstein, buildings in the inner bailey at sunset

Not all his movements are clearly documented. Obviously, Otto fled to the Slavic tribe of the Liutici for a time (he must really have been desperate to seek shelter with a people he had defeated a few years ago, then still acting on behalf of the king), but returned to a stronghold near Kassel where he made his last stand against Heinrich's army and in the end had to accept formal surrender, the so so-called deditio (2).

More old walls.

The rest of Otto of Northeim's life wasn't boring, either. He was introduced to court during the regentship of Queen Agnes, got involved in an abduction, was accused of attempted regicide, led armies in several wars, participated in an unfortunate embassy to Rome; and his ongoing strife with the king overshadowed the last thirteen years of his life until his death in 1083.

(1) A little side note for our British readers: Welf later married Judith of Flanders, widow of Tostig Godwinson who fell at Stamford Bridge. Welf's grandson Heinrich the Proud was the father of Heinrich the Lion who married Mathilde, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Heinrich the Lion's mother was Gertrud, daughter of the Emperor Lothar of Süpplingenburg (the one who founded Königslutter Cathedral); her mother was Richenza, the granddaughter of Otto of Northeim. Gotta love family trees, lol. The Welfen dynasty still exists today.

(2) So far, I couldn't find out what happened to Otto's daughter Ethelind (the one married to Welf) and his sons, particularly his heir Heinrich the Fat, during that time.

  Will They Ever Learn?

Dear director of that German TV documentary about the Germans and Rome, this is a Roman saddle.

Do you see any stirrups? No? Right, because there aren't any stirrups on a Roman saddle. Next time, find an actor playing Germanicus in the Teutoburg Forest who can ride and dismount a horse without the need of stirrups. It's not that difficult, really, I've ridden bareback more than once, and a Roman saddle is more comfortable than that. You should also get a Roman saddle, the modern one would have looked a bit off even without the stirrups.

  A Note on handgenginn maðr

A handgenginn maðr is closer to his king than a vassal, but of higher status than a retainer. He usually stays in the king's entourage while a vassal holds a fief and only serves at court during given times; though sometimes a handgenginn maðr would be sent off onto a mission. On the other hand, the handgengna menn were held in high respect for their choice, and a king who could claim many of them was considered a good and successful king. The process is called ganga til hands and is a mixture of elements also found in the investiture of a vassal and special traits. It is a typical Norse institution, not to be found in England, Germany or France.

  Hanstein Introduction, 2

The first mention of Hanstein Castle names it as one of the possessions of Otto Count of Northeim and Duke of Bavaria. It was destroyed in 1070 by King Heinrich IV - I've mentioned in this post, that the relationship between Otto and Heinrich was an uneasy one since Otto was one of the major players in the Saxon opposition against the king.

The conflict started by an intrigue when a certain Egino accused Otto of planning to murder King Heinrich. I'll get back to events that surround the accusation and Heinrich's and Otto's reactions. What is clear is that in 1070 things had gone downriver really bad; Otto and his friend Magnus Billung had forfeited all their allodial possessions and fiefs and been proclaimed outlaws.

Trench between inner and outer curtain wall

The Hanstein, then still a wooden castle with probably only one moat and curtain wall, was destroyed by King Heinrich during what one website refers to as Battle of Eschwege. I researched that and it turned out it was a skirmish at best and not immediately connected with King Heinrich IV's actions. In September 1070, Otto of Northeim fought against a certain count Ruotger or Rugger who held land in the Eschwege area, commanding a troop of Thuringians. No siege is mentioned, so the Hanstein probably wasn't involved in that particular conflict. Nor do I think a minor troop would have had the siege engines necessary to conquer a place as well fortified as Hanstein Castle.

Otto won that one, but it didn't really change his situation, which was rather desperate at the time. Also, Ruotger seemed to have escaped, if he's the same mentioned five years later in connection with a transaction involving the Eschwege earldom.

Here are some more shots. , I like the softening light effects of a low winter sun behind the motives in these. Makes the pictures look a bit like old postcards.

Reconstructed main house

The reconstructed part has three storeys, the lower one with a low, cross grain vaulted ceiling and small windows, the upper ones more like halls, with a loftier cassette ceiling and somewhat larger windows. All were - insufficiently, I'm afraid - heated by a fireplace.

A cellar was hewn into the bedrock of the base. It held storage rooms and prison cells in former times, and today there's a little torture chamber as tourist attraction.

Entrance to the main building, seen from the east

In former times, access was only possible over a drawbridge. The lines of the inner trench are now softened into a park, but when the castle was still in use, the moat must have run around the entire main building, except to the south where the steep rocks offer sufficient protection.

The structure to the left with the one large window near the rim is supposed to have been the chapel. Behind it, you can see one of the chimneys running along outside the walls of another building.

Sabine Borchert, Herzog Otto von Northeim, Hannover 2005.

The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)