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


20.12.07
  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.
 
Comments:
Gabriele,

No I didn't see it when I was at the Louvre. Then again, I might have walked right past it and not paid any attention.

Almost my entire trip in France was targeted for research. I did spend about an hour in the Louvre looking at art that did not have to do with Charlemagne or Islamic art and I remember seeing really large Egyptian replica statues, but I did not take notice of any altars such as the one you showed.

I did however notice some large decorated cows in Marseille. Do you think that has anything to do with residual Mithras worship? I asked our B&B owner who lives in Aix-en-Provence what the significance was with Marseille and cows and he did not know.

Linda
 
I can only guess, but I think the Marseille cows belong to another cultural thread, that of the Minoan bull games and the role of the bull in Greek mythology (Europa legend), maybe also the Spanish bull fights. Marseille was a Greek colony ere the Roman got it, and it had strong connections with the Celto-Iberian culture of Spain. Parts of southern France celebrate some bovine festival less violent than the Spanish version, and the bulls (and cows) of the Camarque are a famous bred, like the horses.

Though on an older, Indoeuropean level, the Mithras bull may connect with the other myths.
 
Gabriele, just wanted to say you have one of the most fascinating and inspiring blogs I've come across.

I've never seen that altar before. It really is beautiful! And in such good condition, considering the clumsiness of some nineteenth-century digs.

The bull does seem to have a very deep symbolic role across the ancient European cultures, classical and Celtic alike. You may well be right in that the symbolism could have its roots in some common Indo-European ideology (is that even the word I'm looking for?), which has somehow endured through time in places such as Spain and Marseille. It's an intriguing thought, and something else to spend ages contemplating...

I'm looking forward to seeing those images of Cautes and Cautopates, if that's what you're posting. I've only even read their names once or twice.
 
Hi Kirsten, welcome to my blog and thank you for your compliments.

I'll keep those two guys in mind for one of the next posts. :)
 
I saw the Mithras temple in Rome - it's in the basement of a Christian church. Fascinating.
 
Sam, I'm amazed they left it there - tolerance towards the Mithras cult was not a trait of most early Christians. ;)
 
What a marvellously detailed carving.

Were they cows or bulls in Marseille? There's a distinct tradition of bullfighting in southern France, shared with Spain. I think they use the Roman theatre at Nimes for it, which must be about the nearest one can get in the modern world to a Roman circus. If they were cows, it might reflect something really prosaic like the local agriculture. There's a very handsome statue of a ram in the main square in Moffat in the Scottish Borders, but it's there not for any long-held folk or ritual tradtion but because the town made its money from the wool trade and some local burghers thought the sheep ought to get due credit :-)

A wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!
 
Carla,

The art statues had udders.

They were all over the downtown area and had different decorations on them. It reminded me of the various Charlie Brown statues that are all over Santa Rosa.

Cows. Definitely cows.

Toulouse has bulls as part of their heritage due to the dragging death of their patron saint Saturnin (Sernin). I saw bulls all over the place in Toulouse and also a large wood carving of the Saint Saturnin and the bull at the Ingres Museum in Montauban.

That's why seeing cows in Marseille seemed curious.

I didn't notice them before going to the Tourist Office. Had I spied them before I would have added that into my list of questions.

Instead I waited to ask my B&B host and he didn't know.

Linda
 
Happy Christmas to you as well, Carla. It was one of the motives where I took ten shots in hope to get at least one that wasn't blurred. Turned out nine of the ten were fine. :) I should learn to trust myself better.

Linda,
maybe the cows were part of a modern art project. Like some of the funny things you stumble around in the Kassel area during the Documenta. ;)
 
The cows are a modern art project, yes. It's called the Cow Parade. They tour different cities all over the world for charity :)

Interesting post Gabriele. I'd like to see more pictures of Mithras stones.
And while we're on the subject of mythological cows, I think Audhumla deserves a mention...
 
Have those cows been in Norway?

I have a few more Mithras pics, but no Audhumla, sorry. That big cow you'll have to trace down - if there are images representing her.
 
They haven't been in Norway (not that I know of at least), but they were in Prague a couple of years ago. My art teacher saw them when she was on holiday there and came back all giddy with excitement. Which resulted in half a semester of modern art...

I'll see if I can find a pic of Audhumla, or I'll draw something. Do you like stick-figure cows? :)
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

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 writer of Historical Fiction and Fantasy living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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