The Romans worshipped a whole range of gods and
goddesses and tolerated other religions and belief
systems so long as they did not interfere with the good
order and running of their Empire. What is less well
known is that the Roman authorities had little tolerance
for many of the ‘secret societies’ or ‘mysteries’ as they
called them, taking the view that those societies were
likely to be subversive. Two of the more notorious
societies were the Eleusinian mysteries and the
The Eleusinian cults were abolished in the 4th Century
BC by the Roman emperor, Theodosius the Great.
The Dionysian initiates worshipped Dionysus, the god
of wine who represented the primitive nature of
humans, which his followers believed was accessible
through wine’s ability to lower inhibitions. One of their
less salubrious rituals involved the dismembering of a
person representing Dionysus to allow the god to be
reborn. Dionysians went out of their way to be
controversial. Some of their rituals were enacted in
public; frenzied, drunken orgies, the playing of
instruments called bullroarers and the sacrifice of
animals using a double-headed axe followed by the
drinking of the animal’s blood mixed with wine.
Banning a society only made it that much more
attractive to certain people. The Roman emperors
had a lot of trouble with these mysteries.
Many male Romans, particularly members of the
military, were members of a mystery and one of the
most mysterious was one called Mithraism, popular
between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Followers of
Mithraism worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithras,
the god of friendship, contract and order. Mithraism
was one of very few secret societies that were
tolerated by the Roman Emperors because the group
proclaimed support of imperial power.
Over 200 Mithras temples, or Mithraea, have been
found stretching from Syria to Britain, with the
majority in Italy, and along the Rhine and Danube
Only three Mithraea have been found in Spain, one at
Lugo near Santiago de Compostella in Galicia
another at Mérida in Extremadura province and the
third at Cabra in Córdoba province.
In 1951, at a Roman site close to Cabra now called the
Villa Mithra, a farmer found a statue of Mithras.
Sometime later, after he was suitably rewarded by the
church council, the statue became an exhibit
at the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba. A
replica was made in 1975 for the museum at
Cabra. It was assumed that the villa was one
location where members of this mystery met.
The Cabra museum curators built a replica of
a Mithraea, an underground vault in which the
members met and practised their rites.
Members were expected to graduate through
seven grades of initiation, each grade being
commended to a different planetary god.
Novices joined as Corax, their deity being
Mercury and progressed to Nymphus (Venus),
Miles (Mars), Leo (Jupiter), Perses (Luna),
Heliodromus (Sol) and finally Pater (Saturn).
Each grade had accompanying symbols that
were displayed on a gown. The promotion to
each level was witnessed by the other
members and included an oath of secrecy and
obedience and a catechism.
Not surprisingly, being so secret, there are not
many of these catechisms around today, in
fact, only one is known, and that was found on
a fragment of papyrus in Egypt. It refers to the
promotion to Leo grade and consists of
several statements made by the Pater and responses by the initiate. Presumably,
the initiate had to make correct
responses to pass the test. There is
no record of what happened to him if
The god Mithras was probably
‘borrowed’ by the Romans from the
Persians who worshipped Mithra. He
was supposedly born from a rock as a
youth, naked and carrying a knife or
dagger in one hand and a torch in the
other. His claim to fame is his single
handed killing of a bull, an image that
always appears in a Mithraea in the
most prominent position above an
altar. The image could be a relief in
stone or, as at Cabra, a statue. This
depiction is called the tauroctony.
Mithras’s second claim to fame is his
banquet with Sol, both reclining on
the hide of the slaughtered bull.
Of the Mithraea discovered, many in Rome, others in Numidia, Dalmatia, Egypt and
Britain, all appeared to have two long stone benches large enough for about 30 men. It
has been suggested that they were used by the members who lounged on them whilst
they enjoyed a banquet. Food preparation rooms adjoined the vault. Mithraea, by the
way, is a modern term; the Romans referred to their sacred cellars as speleum (from
which our word speleology derives) or crypta.
Members of the cult recognised each other by a handshake. Now that sounds familiar.
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