The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times


20 Dec 2007
  Mithras Altars in Germania

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. As I said, 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.

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 probably 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 present in most tauroctony scenes, and even have figures of their own sometimes, as displayed in the Saalburg museum (see below).

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.

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 altar 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 is another 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.

Here are some photos of Mithras' helpers. 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.

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.

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 known where it was situated. We know today that the structure labeled as mithraeum has been misinterpreted, probably because the people involved with the Saalburg excavations and reconstruction wished to have a mithraeum in the 19th century. 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.
 
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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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 still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae
Life in Skara Brae

Scandinavia

Gotland
The Ship Setting of Gnisvärd


Post-Mediaeval History

Explorers and Discoveries

Explorers
Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

Discoveries
Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)

Biographies

European Nobility
Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus


Miscellanea

History in Literature and Music

History in Literature

Biographies of German Poets and Writers
Theodor Fontane

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane
(Translated by me)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Not so Serious History

Romans
Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Mediaeval Times
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Other
Rules for Writing Scottish Romances
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geology

Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations

Solling-Vogler
Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland
Staffa

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite


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