In 1954, London became the focus of archaeological astonishment when a large marble head was found during building construction. The head was soon identified as belonging to a statue of the Roman deity Mithras, worshipped by a secretive cult that spread across the Roman Empire between the 1st and 4th century AD.
Despite the discovery of a hidden temple that promised to unearth the secrets of Mithras, relatively little is known about the cult and how they worshipped. Nonetheless, here are 10 facts revealing what we do know about Roman London’s mysterious god.
1. The secretive cult worshiped a bull-killing god called Mithras
In physical sources depicting Mithras, he is shown killing a sacred bull, although today’s scholars are unsure what this meant. In Persia, Mithras was god of the rising sun, contracts and friendship, and was shown dining with the god of the sun, Sol.
Mithras maintained the orderly change of seasons and kept watch over cosmic order, overlapping with the role of Sol the sun god in both Persian and Roman belief systems.
2. Mithras originated from Persia where he was first worshipped
Mirthas was a figure of the Middle Eastern Zoroastrian religion. When the armies of the Roman Empire came back to the west, they brought the cult of Mithras with them. There was also another version of the god known to the Greeks, which brought together the Persian and the Greco-Roman worlds.
3. The mysterious cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century
Although the headquarters for the cult was based in Rome, it quickly spread across the Empire over the next 300 years, predominantly attracting merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Only men were allowed, which was likely part of the attraction for Roman soldiers.
4. Members of the cult met in underground temples
These ‘Mithraeum’ were private, dark and windowless spaces, built to replicate the mythological scene of Mithras killing a sacred bull – the ‘tauroctony’ – within a cave. The story where Mithras kills the bull was a defining characteristic of Roman Mithraism, and has not been found in original Middle Eastern depictions of the deity.
5. The Romans did not call the cult ‘Mithraism’
Instead, writers of the Roman era referred to the cult by phrases such as “Mithraic mysteries”. A Roman mystery was a cult or organisation restricting membership to those who had been initiated and were characterised by secrecy. As such, there are few written records describing the cult, indeed keeping it a mystery.
6. To get into the cult you had to pass a series of initiations
For members of the cult there was a strict code of 7 different tasks set by the priests of the Mithraeum that the follower had to pass if he wished to advance further into the cult. Passing these tests also gave cult members the divine protection of various planetary gods.
7. Archaeological finds have been the main source of modern knowledge about Mithraism
Meeting places and artefacts illustrate how the secretive cult practised throughout the Roman Empire. These include 420 sites, around 1000 inscriptions, 700 depictions of the bull-killing scene (tauroctony), and about 400 other monuments. However, even the meaning of this wealth of sources about the mysterious cult continue to be contested, maintaining the secret of Mithras millennia later.
8. Roman London also worshipped the secretive god
On 18 September 1954, a marble head belonging to a statue of Mithras was discovered below the wreckage of post-war London. The head was identified as Mithras because he is often shown wearing a soft, bent hat called a Phrygian cap. In the 3rd century AD, a Roman Londoner had built a temple to Mithras next to the now-lost river Walbrook.
The 20th century finding led archaeologists to confirm that a nearby underground structure was indeed the temple dedicated to Mithras, which became one of the most significant events in British archaeological history.
9. Mithras is thought to have been celebrated on Christmas Day
Some scholars believe that followers of Mithras celebrated him on 25 December each year, connecting him to the winter solstice and changing seasons. Unlike Christians marking the birth of Jesus, these celebrations would have been very private.
The basis for this belief is that 25 December was also the Persian day of celebration for Sol, the sun god, with whom Mithras was closely linked. However, because so little is known about the cult of Mithraism, scholars cannot be certain.
10. Mithraism was a rival of early Christianity
In the 4th century, followers of Mithras faced persecution from Christians who saw their cult as a threat. As a result, the religion was suppressed and had disappeared within the Western Roman Empire by the end of the century.